Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be Whiteby David R. Roediger
From folktales and slave narratives to contemporary essays, poetry, and fiction, black writers have long been among America's keenest students of white
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In this thought-provoking volume, David R. Roediger has brought together some of the most important black writers throughout history to explore the question: What does it really mean to be white in America?
From folktales and slave narratives to contemporary essays, poetry, and fiction, black writers have long been among America's keenest students of white consciousness and white behavior, but until now much of this writing has been ignored. Black on White reverses this trend by presenting the work of more than fifty major figures, including James Baldwin, Derrick Bell, Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. Du Bois, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker to take a closer look at the many meanings of whiteness in our society.
Rich in irony, artistry, passion, and common sense, these reflections on what Langston Hughes called "the ways of white folks" illustrate how whiteness as a racial identity derives its meaning not as a biological category but as a social construct designed to uphold racial inequality. Powerful and compelling, Black on White provides a much-needed perspective that is sure to have a major impact on the study of race and race relations in America.
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White people have not always been "white," nor will they always be "white." It is a political alliance. Things will change.
AMOJA THREE RIVERS
Consider a slave on the auction block, awaiting sale. Imagine the slave being seen, indeed examined, by the potential bidders. Imagine what she felt. Think of her trembling and crying, breaking down, even fighting back. Such attempts to imagine looking in on the auction block and to empathize with those for sale have found a hard-won place in the mainstream of American culture. But little prepares us to see her as looking out, as studying the bidders. And yet, as recent and imaginative research has shown, slaves on the block often searched out every clue in sizing up the whites who would own them.1 Did that scar represent a history of violence? What did that leer suggest? Was that accent familiar, or did it point to the possibility of being transported great distances, away from family and to the master's home? Did those clothes mean great wealth, declining fortunes, or poor whiteness? What could be learned of the buyers from other slaves? What strategies of self-presentation would discourage the attention of the bidder most feared, or encourage the potential buyer judged to be the best of terrible options?
When Langston Hughes published The Ways of White Folks some sixty years after the end of slavery, he featured the short story "Slave on the Block" near the book's outset. Set in early-twentieth-century New York City, not the antebellum South, and describing the experiences of a black servant rather than a slave, Hughes's story nonetheless claimed the angle of vision from the auction block as indispensable in describing how African Americans have learned about white ways.2 In fact, the drama of the auction block highlights many of the major themes included in this volume regarding how African Americans have thought about and studied whiteness. The deep associations of whiteness with terror and with property were sharply posed at the point of sale. The auction block gave flesh to questions of sexual exploitation and of gender. Its stark realities laid bare the urgent imperative for slaves to penetrate the psychologies of whites and their necessity to make distinctions even among white slave buyers. All of these themes and more figure prominently in African-American thought concerning whiteness, and deserve our attention here.
But few Americans have ever considered the idea that African- Americans are extremely knowledgeable about whites and whiteness. In the mainstream of American culture, and certainly in intellectual circles, a rough and unproductive division of labor exists where the claiming of expert knowledge and commonsense wisdom on race are concerned. White writers have long been positioned as the leading and most dispassionate investigators of the lives, values, and abilities of people of color. White writing about whiteness is rarer, with discussions of what it means to be human standing in for considerations of how racial identity influences white lives. Writers of color, and most notably African-American writers, are cast as providing insight, often presumed to be highly subjective, of what it is like to be "a minority." Lost in this destructive shuffle is the fact that from folktales onward African Americans have been among the nation's keenest students of white consciousness and white behavior.
A story about each of the two greatest modern writers on whiteness in the United States, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, allows us to see how African-American knowledge of whites is created and suppressed. In 1993, the journalist Bill Moyers asked Morrison when she would start writing about white people. Morrison wanted no part of Moyers's invitation to move into the white center of literary culture. She pledged to "stay out here at the margin and let the center come looking for me." Morrison had, however, already written considerably about whites, both in fictional work like "Recitatif" and in the brilliant 1990 volume Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.3 That challenging book was so little appreciated that Moyers could still ask when the writing on whites was to come. The fact that she had written the most important volume on whiteness published in this decade did not so much as establish Morrison's interest in the subject in the eyes of a relatively sophisticated observer of race in the United States like Moyers.
At nineteen, James Baldwin's visits to the Apollo Theatre, an art film house on 42nd Street in New York City, left him paralyzed by a terror born of looking into the faces of the white, gay male clientele there. The gay men he saw seemed "so far from being or resembling faggots." Indeed he thought that they "looked and sounded like vigilantes who banded together on weekends to beat faggots up." After much suffering, he found that it was often true that the men alternated between gay sexuality and homophobic violence. Baldwin situated his knowledge in the position from which he observed the men. He had "seen them in the men's room, sometimes on their knees, peering up into the stalls." But his racial position also mattered. "I might not have learned this had I been a white boy," he later wrote, regarding his knowledge of the coexistence of sex and violence, "but sometimes a white man will tell a black boy anything, everything, weeping briny tears. He knows that a black boy can never betray him, for no one will believe his testimony."4 Baldwin's reminiscences complicate our tasks. They suggest that Moyers's dismissal of Morrison's work on whiteness might typify a larger pattern of the ways in which whites disbelieve and/or disregard how much African Americans know about them. Indeed, for Baldwin, the wholesale dismissal by whites of African-American expertise regarding whiteness was one critical condition under which such knowledge could be obtained.
At times African Americans have boldly claimed their expertise on whiteness. In the World War One era, James Weldon Johnson would assert as a "fact" that "colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them." A decade later, the African-American journalist and novelist George S. Schuyler held, "While the average Nordic knows nothing of how Negroes actually live and what they think, the Negroes know the Nordic intimately." The claims advanced by Johnson and Schuyler are serious and well-grounded, despite the fact that they would seem very unfamiliar and counterintuitive to most whites. Schuyler explained the insights of Black thinkers into "white lives" by observing that "blacks haven't been working with or for white folks all these years for nothing." W.E.B. Du Bois in Darkwater and bell hooks in Black Looks similarly emphasize the servants' ability to know the families for whom they work.5 The contemporary mystery writer Barbara Neely captures this point wonderfully as her domestic worker/detective hero, Blanche White, solves murders by deploying her intimate knowledge of whites. Long experience with violence and sexual exploitation, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Frederick Douglass argued, perfectly situated African-American Southerners to deflate the claims to chivalry, restraint, and civilization made by white males of that region. The drama and tragedy of passing as white, which is the subject of a large literature usually seen as portraying an exotic part of Black life, also turned on the close observation of white lives. Thus it should be no surprise that the legal theorist Cheryl Harris has recently used histories of passing by a family member to open discussions of the dynamics of white society.6
What bell hooks describes as the fantastic white ability to imagine "that black people cannot see them" constitutes a white illusion at once durable, powerful, and fragile. It exists alongside a profound fear of actually being seen by people of color. As Baldwin argued, ". . . a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man's desire not to be judged by those who are not white." From the beatings of house slaves who knew too much to the lynchings of African Americans thought to look too long, safety has often turned not just on being unseen, but also on being perceived as unseeing. Richard Wright's mother knew whereof she spoke when she responded fiercely and negatively to his apparently simple youthful question, "Can I go peep at the white folks?" The law under slavery went to considerable pains to keep slaves from testifying against, or even about, whites. After emancipation, keeping African Americans off juries became a central focus of racist state policy.7 Discounting and suppressing the knowledge of whiteness held by people of color was not just a byproduct of white supremacy but an imperative of racial domination.
The exposure of the illusion that Blacks did not see and know whites was too troubling to be countenanced, even if indications of its implausibility came from white authors centrally placed within the canon of Western philosophy and literature. If Hegel's celebrated early-nineteenth-century reflections on "lordship and bondage" applied to slavery and racial oppression, white mastery was futile and the denial of African-American knowledge of whites was ridiculous. Hegel saw the slave as living always with the knowledge of the master's deadly power. Slaves therefore necessarily thought deeply about the dynamics of lordship and bondage. The master could afford a lofty ignorance. As the slaves labored, stood in fear, and learned, they also "worked on" escaping their chains. This probing analysis, philosophers are anxious to tell us, represented Hegel's grappling with broad issues of consciousness and mind, not with the slave systems of his age. With this view, the implications of Hegel's work can neatly be separated from Baldwin's insistence that "white men have for black men a reality which is far from being reciprocal."8
Literary critics often manage to skirt the troubling implications of the closest fictional approximation of Hegel's insights, Herman Melville's classic novel of slave revolt, Benito Cereno. Critics have found Benito Cereno to be fundamentally concerned with good and evil, with civilization and savagery, with the confidence of the young American nation--with, in short, everything but African-American knowledge of whites. Not coincidentally, the writer who has done the most to restore discussions of Black genius regarding whites to discussions of the very plot of Benito Cereno (and to establish connections of Melville with Hegel) is the African-American historian of slavery, Sterling Stuckey. "The slave perspective on the larger society," Stuckey has written in a passage suggesting one source of his insights into Melville, "is seldom about the oppressed exclusively."9
1. See Walter Johnson's brilliant "Bargaining: Daily Life, Information and Opportunity in the New Orleans Slave Pens" from his forthcoming book. See also his "Masters and Slaves in the Market of Slavery and the New Orleans Trade, 1804-1864" (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1995).
2. Langston Hughes, "Slave on the Block," in The Ways of White Folks (New York: Knopf, 1934), 19-31.
3. Robert Fikes, Jr., "Escaping the Literary Ghetto: African American Authors of White Life Novels, 1946-1994," Western Journal of Black Studies 19 (1995), 111; Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1992); Morrison, "Recitatif," in Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women, Amiri and Amina Baraka, eds. (New York: Morrow, 1983), 243-61. For a brilliant appreciation of this aspect of Morrison's work, see Joy James, "Politicizing the Spirit: American Africanisms and African Ancestors in the Essays of Toni Morrison," Cultural Studies 9 (May 1995).
4. James Baldwin, "Here Be Dragons," in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985), 682-83.
5. James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (New York: Knopf, 1970, originally 1927); George S. Schuyler, "Our White Folks," The American Mercury (December 1927), 387; bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 165 and 168; W.E.B. Du Bois, Darkwater (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920), 111-13. The same point is forcefully made in Charles Payne's brilliant history of the Black freedom movement, I've Got the Light of Freedom (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), 311.
6. See especially Barbara Neely, Blanche on the Lam (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), 39 and 115-16; Cheryl Harris, "Whiteness as Property," Harvard Law Review 106 (June 1993), 1710-13; on Wells, see Vron Ware, Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History (New York: Verso, 1992), 167-224, and Martha Hodes, Sex Across the Color Line, forthcoming from Yale University Press.
7. hooks, Black Looks, 168 and 169; Baldwin, "The Fire Next Time," in The Price of the Ticket, 333; Richard Wright, Black Boy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945), 57.
8. G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind (London: Allen and Unwin, 1910), I: 183ff; Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 49-51. Hegel's own views on the supposed backwardness of African people make the task of dismissing the historical rootedness of his insights much easier. See Hegel, The Philosophy of History (London: H. G. Bonn, 1894), 99. See also Baldwin, "The Fire Next Time," in The Price of the Ticket, 375.
9. Sterling Stuckey, "The Tambourine in Glory: African Culture and Melville's Art," forthcoming; Stuckey, "The Death of Benito Cereno: A Reading of Herman Melville on Slavery," in Going Through the Storm: The Influence of African American Art in History (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 158-59 and 169. See also Carolyn Karcher, Shadow Over the Promised Land: Slavery, Race and Violence in Melville's America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980).
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David R. Roediger is professor of history and chair of American studies at the University of Minnesota. The author of The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class and Towards the Abolition of Whiteness, Roediger lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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