Laughing To Keep From Crying:
Resisting "Race" Through Irony
He wanted to rise-a malicious, ironic voice insisted that he rise-and, at once, to leave this temple and go out into the world.
"Race," whatever it may be, is something that we are not yet done with. We may never be done with it. It may be a category that we will always be present in some form or another in our societies. Or, it may be the case that the category is on the verge of extinction, and that it will fade as its social usefulness, importance, and its descriptive and explanatory power fades. Whatever its future is, a case can be made that at present "race" is descriptive of social life and organization in the U.S., as well as other parts of the globe. This is a descriptive, and not a normative claim.
As a human category "race" is invaluable part our attempts to explain and understand the history and realities of oppression, bigotry, and violence in the U.S. Deprived of the use of "race" as a social category, the social sciences would not be able to provide nuanced and insightful explanations of U.S. history and this society's social landscape. This history and social landscape is what I refer to as the American "racial" politic. In addition plays a role in our attempts to organize communities in our struggle to redress "racial" wrongs, and to end racism and "racial" oppression. For the limited purposes of social science and politics, "race" is legitimate and ought to be conserved. That "race" is useful, descriptive, or explanatory now is not to say that will always be true. The future of "race" is going to be determined by future forms of social organization. What I have argued for above is a pragmatic and limited role for race.
A pragmatic and limited role for "race," however, does not placate those, like myself, who are leery of it. The conservation of "race," in any form, is worrisome. Social identities are powerful elements of our social worlds. They are thickly wrapped in complicated and often troublesome histories. Their durations and the twists and turns they make through our worlds during their tenures are unpredictable. Such is the case with "race." The history of "race" in the U.S. is soaked in blood. Yet, and for good reasons, "race" is the centerpiece of identity for many individuals and communities. Still, worries and doubts remain about the social utility of "race."
In this paper, given this complex situation, I will argue that to prevent "race" from being conserved for the wrong reasons and becoming our "racial" Frankenstein-to prevent it, like Frankenstein's monster, from haunting our days and nights-we ought to regard it with irony. To make this argument I will discuss the relationship of irony to human categories. I will then discuss in what sense I use irony, and how it applies to "race" and the American "racial" politic. Finally, I will defend the ironic perspective on "race," as I conceive of it, from some objections. Taking the African American tradition of letters as an example, I will argue that, although this ironic perspective does transgress against popular notions of "racial" identity and community, it is not foreign to those communities, and offers us a uniquely prophetic perspective in our contemporary struggles with "race" and racism.
Human Categories & Irony
Although we may recognize the reality of some human categoriesæalso called "Human kinds" by some philosophersæwe do not need to exaggerate their metaphysical status. Recognizing the social reality of human kinds does not mean that we ought to naturalize or hold them in undue reverence. Human kinds are the result of various social vectors. Michael Root argues that human become real due to three social forces:  The labeling of groups of people by social institutions,  the intentional acting under descriptions associated with those labels by the so labeled, and  the normative forces that compel the so labeled to behave in label appropriate manners. Human kinds are social things, and, as with the societies from which they arise, they are dynamic.
The metaphysical status of human kinds invites us to regard them with humility. Humility about human kinds arises from an understanding of them as historically contingent, fragile, and constructed out of our interests, conceits, and prejudices. Our social world is a torrent of lived experience, and these social categories are caught up, torn apart, created, and transformed in its currents. We ought be cognizant of this social dynamic, and let our knowledge of it bear on how we regard social categories.
Awareness of the peculiar metaphysics of human kinds leads us to regard them with humility. We dare not take them for granted as cosmic truths or permanent installations in our social worlds; rather, we ought to be aware of their descriptive and prescriptive limitations, and are cautious about them: e.g., "Yes, she is gay, insofar as what we by "gay" in our society in this day and age." Any stance other than humility would be dogmatic and self-deceptive.
As is evident in the qualifying clause of the declarative sentence in scare quotes above, irony is evident in humility. Being ironic about human kinds involves a consciousness of the contingency of the social identity in question, its site/time specificity, or of the possibility that the identity may be meaningless, irrelevant, or silly in another society and time. Taking a position of humility or caution toward human kinds is important, but I recommend irony because it is a more robust stance.
Irony involves a consciousness of the contingency, fragility, and changing nature of human kinds. It is an understanding that the categories we inhabit have not always been and may one day be no more. It is an understanding that we inhabit multiple categories and that we move across many, at times to the point of contradiction, in our lifetimes. Finally, irony includes a socially critical perspective that continuously critiques the legitimacy of human kinds.
In the everyday, an ironic perspective towards every human kind would be useless, exhausting, and, in the end, just plain silly. While we ought to be humble about all our social kinds, there is no need for us to be ironic about trivial kinds, such as "bus driver," which tend to be nominal kinds. When a human kind has a problematic history or role in society, or it is judged suspect, however, irony is certainly called for. When a kind is judged illegitimate, however, instead of irony what is needed is direct resistance. There is no need to be playful about social identities, e.g., "slave" and "slave master," that are illegitimate.
Irony as a strategy for social change works well with contemporary accounts of human kinds. Various metaphysical frameworks that have taken human kinds up as subjects of reflection, such as the metaphysical pluralism of John Dupre, Ian Hacking, and Michael Root, have revealed that our social worlds are constituted by the kinds that inhabit them, and that as kinds change, emerge, and fade-away, so do worlds. World-making, as Ian Hacking argues, is kind-making. Changing a social world becomes a function of changing its human kinds. Irony, given such a metaphysical framework, is a tool for social transformation.
My notion of irony as a socially critical perspective, takes its inspiration from Richard Rorty's conception of irony. According to Rorty, an ironist-an individual who adopts an ironic perspective-is someone who realizes:
... that any thing can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed, and their renunciation of the attempt to formulate criteria of choice between final vocabularies, puts them in the position which Sartre called "meta-stable": never quite able to take themselves seriously because always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change.
Rorty uses irony as a part of his post-modernist and pragmatic epistemology and political theory, and applies it to all knowledge. I limit irony, however, to human kinds; especially illegitimate ones.
I have presented irony as an attitude that we ought to apply to various degrees to all human kinds. The less questionable or obnoxious a human kind is, the less we need to be ironic about it; however, given the opposite scenario, the more ironic we need to be. Unfortunately, society is often beholden and less than ironic about some of its most questionable categories; "race" being one of them. In such an environment, the role of the ironist is decisive.
In my use of irony in relation to human kinds, an ironist is conscious of the contingency, fragility, and changing nature of human kinds. An ironist is socratic about human kinds. An ironist never takes social constructions too seriously, accepts the complexity of social identities, and is ever willing, given the appropriate political or moral arguments, to envision and initiate change: To engage in world making.
Resisting "race" through irony
From the outset the African American response to oppressive American "racial" politics has involved irony. The presence of irony in African American arts, letters, music, and folklore takes many forms. Two particular expressions of irony predominate. The first is irony about the joys and tribulations of the African American experience (i.e., the blues). The second takes the form, as Frederick Douglass would call it, of "scorching irony:" A sarcastic attack against racism, and the hypocrisy of American democracy and liberalism. Often the lines between these two sorts of irony are blurred.
Frederick Douglass, one of the earliest African American ironists, was singular in his sarcastic use irony to attack the institution of slavery in "the land of the free." His "fourth of July oration," remains one of the premiere examples of American political irony, and is a testament to the early use of irony to attack the American "racial" politic:
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation's ear, I would to-day pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
Although Douglass took an ironic stance towards "race," his scorching irony was reserved for racism and America's hypocrisy. We are not yet done fighting that war, so this strategy is still needed. In addition to these two traditional roles of irony, I advocate the employment of irony against "race" itself. Appiah, who stands with Douglass' against the conservation of "race," also adopts this strategy:
... here are my positive proposals: live with fractured identities; engage in identity play; find solidarity, yes, but recognize contingency, and, above all, practice irony.
Appiah, in his most recent work, like myself, joins a social constructivist account of "race" with a call for irony to be applied to the category.
The ironist, in regards to "race" and its entrenchment in American society, undermines the category by rejecting "racial" mores and norms, by rejecting or problematizing categorization, and by offending the sensibilities of "racial" purists. The ironist understands and takes seriously the social reality and impact of "race;" however, the ironist resists the "racial" politic by refusing to support a "racial" mythology that is no longer pragmatic.
This ironic stance undermines any attempt to ignore the fundamental humanity behind our collective and confrontational "racial incrustations." Irony staves off the potential Frankenstein of "racial" essentialism and chauvinism. Moreover, irony has the potential to liberate us from the shackles of internal or external norms and stereotypes that accompany human kinds. Irony has potential for building social cohesion through the destruction of social barriers that attempt to cordon off our loves and loyalties. In general, ironists to social identities resist social borders and the limitations that come with them, and, thereby, also the forces that lead to balkanization. This strategy allows us to both maintain the category for our political reasons, and restrain the category from, as Appiah puts it, "going imperial."
Irony in African American Letters & African Folklore
Irony about "race" is not foreign to the American discourse on "race" or to the African American intellectual tradition. Frederick Douglass in his statement "A man's a man for a' that," was being ironic about "race." Moreover, irony about the category is apparent in the writings of Du Bois; although his irony was often shadowed by his call to conserve "race." Irony about "race" is represented in the writings of Countee Cullen, Jessie Redmon Fausset, Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglass Johnson, and George Schulyer among others.
Cullen, Fausset, Hughes, Johnson, and Schulyer were all poets and authors of the Harlem Renaissance, and it is not incidental that they were all concerned in their respective ways with the metaphysics of "race." The Harlem Renaissance was banner era for ironic discussions of "race" in African American letters. The Harlem Renaissance during the 1920's was the age of the New Negro. The 1920's marked the beginning of the great migration of African Americans to northern industrial cities. Harlem, the "Paris" for the New Negro, was in its heights and drew worldwide acclaim. It was time when African American intellectuals and artists reconsidered what it meant to black in America. Such a project was one that invited irony.
Irony regarding "race" was explored in African American literature through what is often called the "passing genre." Although this genre saw its best representations in the Harlem Renaissance, by such works as Jessie Fausset's Plum Bun and George Schulyer's satire Black No More, the genre predates the Harlem Renaissance.
A figure of particular interest is Jean Toomer (18941967); mystic, poet, and author. Toomer used irony to critique the American "racial" politic, and his poetry and fiction expressed irony about American "racial" categories. Toomer was of mixed "racial" heritage, and light enough to "pass" as white. He rebelled against "racial" categorization of himself and of his work. He did not, however, deny cultural connections; rather, he demanded control over his identity and rejected simple characterizations of his life and works. As an ironist, according to Naomi Zack, Toomer's main fault was his largely private application of irony. His most pointed comments that displayed his ironist position were about his identity, and his "racial" composition:
In my body were many bloods, some dark blood, all blended in the fire of six or more generations. I was, then, either a new type of man or the very oldest. In any case I was inescapably myself.... If I achieved greatness of human stature, then just to the degree that I did I would justify all the blood in me. If I proved worthless, then I would betray all. In my own mind I could not see the dark blood as something quite different and apart. But if people wanted to say this dark blood was Negro blood and if they then wanted to call me a Negro-this was up to them. Fourteen years of my life I had lived in the white group, four years I had lived in the colored group. In my experience there had been no main difference between the two. But if people wanted to isolate and fasten on those four years and to say that therefore I was colored, this too was up to them.... I determined what I would do. To my real friends of both groups, I would, at the right time, voluntarily define my position. As for people at large, naturally I would go my way and say nothing unless the question was raised. If raised, I would meet it squarely, going into as much detail as seemed desirable for the occasion. Or again, if it was not the person's business I would either tell him nothing or the first nonsense that came into my head.
Although the best example of his irony are about himself, he is an ironist about "race," and from that position critiques the American "racial" through his sketches in Cane and in some of his poetry.
Toomer was a mystic, and a follower of the Russian spiritual teacher Georges Gurdjieff. According to Darwin Turner, a Toomer scholar, what attracted Toomer to Gurdjieff was his professed "ability to help people fuse their fragmented selves into a new and perfect whole-a harmony of mind, body, and soul-through a system of mental and physical exercise emphasizing introspection, meditation, concentration, discipline, and self-liberation."
Toomer felt fragmented by the absolutist demands of American norms of "racial" identity. He applied Gurdjieff's teachings, or rather his interpretation of Gurdjieff's teachings, to his issues of "racial" identity to form a complex and ironic, albeit egoistic, conception of "racial" identity:
From my own point of view I am naturally and inevitably an American. I have strived for a spiritual fusion analogous to the fact of racial intermingling. Without denying a single element in me, with no desire to subdue one to the other, I have sought to let them function as complements. I have tried to let them live in harmony. Within the last two or three years, however, my growing need for artistic expression has pulled me deeper and deeper into the Negro group. And as my powers of receptivity increased, I found myself loving it in a way that I could never love the other. It has stimulated and fertilized whatever creative talent I may contain within me. A visit to Georgia last fall was the starting point of almost everything of worth that I have done. I heard folk-songs come from the lips of Negro peasants. I saw the rich dusk beauty that I had heard many false accents about, and of which till then, I was somewhat skeptical. And a deep part of my nature, a part that I had repressed, sprang suddenly to life and responded to them. Now, I cannot conceive of myself as aloof and separated. My point of view has not changed; it has deepened, it has widened.
Toomer emphatically stated to his publishers: "My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine."
After the abundance of artists applying irony to "race" during the Harlem Renaissance, Ralph Ellison was the most significant American author to take up an ironic stance against "race." Through his magnum opus, Invisible Man, and his essays, Ellison-in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and George Schulyer-extended the tradition of irony in African American letters and applied it to this nation's conception of itself. Not only was Ellison ironic about the situation of the black American, the hypocrisy of American liberalism, "race," and the "racial" purity of white Americans, he was ironic applied "scorching irony" to white America's conception of their nation as culturally white.
In a famous scene from Invisible Man, involving a paint factory that makes "optic white," the whitest paint available, Ellison signifies-subversion through an ironic and satiric critique-on America's whiteness by exposing that it is the presence of "blackness," through ten drops of a mysterious black liquid, that makes "optic white" so white; and thus America so white: "White! It's the purest white that can be found. Nobody makes a paint any whiter."
Ellison's ironic stance toward "race" resists essentialization, stagnation, and purity. His conception of individual identity centers individualism and self-creation, and the effervescence and fluidity of communal identity:
Stephen's problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated features of his face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals. The conscience of a race is the gift of its individuals who see, evaluate, record ... We create the race by creating ourselves and then to our great astonishment we will have created something far more important: We will have created a culture. Why waste time creating a conscience for something that doesn't exist? For, you see, blood and skin do not think!
For Ellison, communal identity, the "race," is the result of a multitude of individual self-expressions. When "race" relegates self-expression, as Ellison argued in Invisible Man, the result is tragic, and each self, and thus the "we," is made invisible. Ellison makes a similar argument in his analysis of Jazz:
There is in this a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself. For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a context in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it...
Jazz, according to Ellison, gets its richness, its very existence and definition, from individual assertion. "Race," like jazz, for Ellison, has no existence without us, it has no power without us, individuals are antecedent to it, and it is perfectly malleable to social forces. As Ellison stated in the prologue of Invisible Man, in top ironic fashion, "black is...an'...black ain't."
The tradition of irony continues in contemporary African American literature, politics, and philosophy. In literature, Charles Johnson's philosophical novels Oxherding Tale, and The Middle Passage are contemporary additions to the genre of passing, and are interesting literary examples of irony applied to "race." In political thought and philosophy the works of Appiah, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Cornel West, and Naomi Zack directly apply an ironic attitude toward "race" as a category and social identity with the intention of engaging in its deconstruction and, in the case of Zack its extinction. West's application of irony is especially rich, as it refers back to the metaphor of jazz which was first developed as a metaphor for American identity by Ralph Ellison:
... the cultural hybrid character of black life leads us to highlight...the metaphor of jazz. I use the term "jazz" here not so much as a term for a musical art form, as for a mode of protean, fluid, and flexible dispositions toward reality suspicious of "either/or" viewpoints, dogmatic pronouncements, or supremacist ideologies. To be a jazz freedom fighter is to attempt to galvanize and energize world-weary people into forms of organization with accountable leadership that promote critical exchange and broad reflection. The interplay of individuality and unity is not one of uniformity and unanimity imposed from above but rather of conflict among diverse groupings that reach a dynamic consensus subject to questioning and criticism. As with a soloist in a jazz quartet, quintet or band, individuality is promoted in order to sustain and increase the creative tension with the group-a tension that yields higher levels of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project. This kind of critical and democratic sensibility flies in the face of any policing of borders and boundaries of "blackness," "maleness," femaleness," or "whiteness."
One of the most important figures in this genealogy of African American intellectuals and artists who engaged irony to critique "race" and American "racial" politics is James Baldwin; a figure who certainly influenced West, and who was intellectual "kin" to Ellison and Murray. Baldwin, a black and gay world-traveler proffered an ironic conception of not only "race," and America, but also of gender and sexuality:
...we are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other-male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white. We are a part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so very often do I. But not of us can do anything about it.
Of all the ironists, excluding perhaps Cornel West and Countee Cullen, Baldwin's irony, in regards to this society's unyielding and interconnected social identities, was truly "scorching."
Beyond the figures and works I have discussed above, perhaps the best example of irony applied to social identities comes from the trickster figure myths and folktales of the African and African American traditions. Among the peoples of West Africa there are four major trickster figures: Ananse of the Ashanti, Legba and Eshu of the Fon (among the Yoruba, Legba is named Esu-Elegbara), and Ogo-Yurugu of the Dogon. Of these four, Legba is present in the black cultures of South America, the Caribbean, and the United States. Legba is known as Exu´ in Brazil, Echu-Elegua in Cuba, Papa Legba in the Voudou pantheon of Haiti, and Papa La Bas in the "Hoodoo" pantheon of the US. Further, according to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Elegba/Eshu-Elegbara is an ancestor of the "signifyin' monkey" and other trickster figures in the African American folk tradition.
The trickster figure in its many incarnations is an ironic figure. (S)he is the embodiment of elusiveness, ambiguity, and liminality. As such, the trickster is holy and a comic figure continuously in trouble as (s)he pushes the boundaries of morality, custom, and nature. As a liminal being and the embodiment of liminality the trickster as both a literary trope and a mythic being resists simplification, clarity, unity, and logical ordering. The trickster is a complex figure that breeds complexity, and revels in the complexity of life-it resists, as Robert Pelton argues, "the univocal mind," "that great enemy of the muddiness of actual human life."
The project of examining and critiquing "race" is a precarious one. Although I argued that "race" should one day pass, it has helped to define communities in the U.S. whose loss we would mourn. The extinction of "race" may seem to be a threatening proposition. I do not believe that the extinction of "race" would precipitate the extinction of these communities. Given this concern, however, the trickster figure is an appropriate example of the ironic. The trickster figure is a figure of irony, but is not a destroyer of communities and social worlds. The trickster figure's place is in a community; firmly rooted in its traditions.
In West African mythic systems, including the mythic systems of the African Diaspora in the Americas, the trickster figure serves as a mode of "healthy commerce" between opposites and contradictions: The possible and impossible, forbidden and allowed, life and death, future and present, reality and unreal, male and female. This peculiar "commerce" that the trickster is engaged in is healthy for communities. Without destroying the community, this "commerce" maintains its flexibility to life's challenges, and it preserves the effervescence-the aliveness, the syncopation, the "jazz"-of the culture.
Discussing Ananse, the trickster figure of the Ashanti, Pelton writes:
... Ananse embodies transaction. For this reason he is a mediator specializing in "exchanges"-a perpetually open passageway. He transforms by no plan except the shape of his own urge to realize the act of dealing, yet because this drive necessarily creates intercourse, he establishes the social geography of the world in the very process of playing out his own inner design.
The "inner design" of Ananse is one of complexity, ambiguity, and liminality. By playing out her/his inner design, Ananse "creates [a social] intercourse," and "establishes the social geography of the world." Ananse, through his/her inner tricksterish design, is not the destroyer of worlds, but the creator of them.
Trickster myths, as Pelton argues, teaches us that like the trickster each human is "an imaginer of life." Thus, the trickster myths, in their tales of boundary breaking and the fusing of contradictions, provide for hope and open up possibilities where we dared not imagined they would be. As Pelton discusses in the case of the Dogon:
Dogon irony ends in delight because Ogo-Yurugu and Nomo [Ogo's twin], as agents of Amma [the godhead and creator], have seized disorder on behalf of life in such a way that nothing can ever finally be lost or wasted. The Dogon are not stupid. They weep at death, get angry at their children, fear the powers of the new generation and the destructiveness of sex, and suffer with the pains of disease and age. Yet the elegance of their system of thought, ... and the coherence of their social system show the confident grasp of the present that only comes from an ease with the past and a hope from the future. Such an ease and such a hope can spring from many sources, but Ogo-Yurugu, the chief actor in the Dogon mythic drama, suggests that here they spring from a radically ironic imagination, capable of an act of communal oxymoron linking death and dancing, disobedience and tradition, play and social order, absurdity and wisdom, aloneness and twinness.
The radical ironic imagination is a font of hope and prophetic vision. When the way is judged to be impossible, or cannot be seen, we reach out to the Papa La Bas, the spirit of irony, and in the fusing of contradictions, unyielding social boundaries are shattered, taboos are broken, and new ways, new social geographies, are forged.
This is exactly the process I want the application of irony to "race" to accomplish for our society, for the American "racial" politic. The contradictions and opposites I want to see "commerce" between are not the grand metaphysical ones Ananse, Esu-Elegbara, or Ogo-Yurugu tangle with; rather, it is "race," black and white, red and brown, and so on and so forth. The ironic attitude toward "race" would allow to see possibilities we never allowed ourselves to see before, it would help us transgress "racial" taboos and categorization, and, thus, "racial" hierarchy and privilege. The ironic attitude toward "race" would help us generate a new social geography that would destroy, not our communities, but the oppressive and anachronistic social geography of "racial" division.
The trickster figure has been in the Americas signifyin' on "racial" politics since the beginning of "racial" politics in North and South America and the Caribbean. The trickster was a figure in the mythic systems of Native Americans and enslaved Africans, and was immediately put to the task of subverting the white man's "racial" order.
In the works of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jessie Fausset, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglass Johnson, George Schulyer, Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray, among others, the trickster is apparent in the irony that they expressed toward "race" and American "racial" politics. As figures in the African American literary tradition, these authors have a connection with the tradition of the trickster in African American folklore, and, thus, with the trickster in the West African mythic tradition. Esu-Elebara moves in Papa La Bas, and in the tales of the signifyin' monkey, John, Brer' Rabbit, the invisible hero of Invisible Man, and the prophetic language of James Baldwin and Cornel West. These cosmic clowns are signifyin' on "race," and our constructions of "whiteness" and blackness." If we were wise we would laugh with them, for as the Dogon say, "jesting increases love."
The Limitations of Irony
[....] and the newest negro to understand that theres no black
yo imagination is fabulous, reverend, pray for color
peeples, when the mayor or after the mayor or before
duh mayor give you yo check, please reverend, and
One of the first objections that is offered against the use of irony against "race," is that it threatens cultural traditions and "racially" defined communities. It is argued that the "post-modernist" application of irony to "race," for example, minimizes or trivializes "blackness."
I do no such thing. I recognize the social presence of "race" and its effects. It is not my intent to minimize or make illusory racism or the effect "race" has had on individuals, society, and history. Further, I should make it clear that my promotion of an ironic stance towards "race" does not establish that ethnic groups are not real and lived human kinds-that "race" is a real human kind is a major position of my work. My strategy is to undermine the notion of "race" that has been invented by European racists; yet allow for a limited and temporary social conception of "race" that can be marshaled in the fight against racism and oppression.
Nevertheless, the ironist position I advocate may affect the borders of, and between, "racial," cultural, or ethnic traditions and identities. Such "border crossings" and transgressions engender new social geographies. These new social geographies that irony towards our social identities encourage, like the machinations of trickster figures, are intended to maintain the health and vitality of communities, and not bring about their extinction.
In contrast, those "hard-line racialists," such as cultural nationalists and "racial" separatists, who oppose demystification of "race," "racial" traditions, and identities ignore the social nature of "race." In reaction to the dehumanization, devaluation, and other exclusions of European racism, hard-line "racialists" have themselves become exclusionary. These unforgiving and un-ironic "racialists" are often dogmatic about "blackness" or "whiteness" and are obsessed with preserving it; however, they conspicuously fail to provide a coherent definition of "blackness" or "whiteness." They miss the fact that cultural, ethnic, and "racial" experiences are lived, effervescent, and-to a degree-indefinable.
As for the beneficial role of "race" in promoting inter-ethnic solidarity; I argue that such "racial" solidarity, or shared ethos, hardly justifies "race." If it is connectivity or a larger, more inclusive, cross-continental community that is desired, then that can be achieved by common empathy, ethos, or experiences-"race" is not required. The nationalist tactic of circling its "racial wagons" to protect its chauvinistic notions of community, identity, and tradition is reactionary and lacks the prophetic vision required to deal with our contemporary challenges.
The second objection that is offered is that an ironic conception of "race" is too weak to meet the moral challenges of communities struggling in a racist society. It is objected that since the ironic conception of "race" undermines group identity, it would also undermine the ability of an oppressed group to organize.
The ironic conception of "race" I offer is a method of resistance-it is not a naive plea to immediately stop believing in the reality of "race." Ignoring "race" will not make it go away; and I do not advocate a position of ignorance. Given that, there are three reasons why my ironic conception of "race" escapes this objection: First, I do not call for the end of culture or ethnicity; thus, groups like African Americans or Latinos still have a basis for group identity. Second, we live in a social world coated with "race," its current presence provides us with the ability to organize with others that suffer because of it. Third, as I argued all along, "race" needs to be preserved to fight racism. In no manner does my ironic conception advocate foolishness or denial in the face of racism. I argue that we should take "racial" oppression seriously, but not "race." I concede, however, that eventually, given my ironic conception, we will not take "race" or our "racial" membership seriously, but that is the point.
Dark Visions: The 2nd Sight of the 7th Son
In the preceding section I presented some rejoinders to objections I have encountered about the use of irony to limit our use of "race," and to aid in its eventual extinction as a human kind. I have repeatedly argued that I do not intend that irony toward "race" bring about the death of cultures created, in part, by its historic use; moreover, I have offered examples from literature, politics, and mythology as illustrations of irony as a creative rather than destructive force.
To further illustrate the regenerative and prophetic potential of irony, and hopefully not to belabor my point, in this section and the next I will discuss three figures not typically associated with ironic attitudes toward "race:" Countee Cullen, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes. All three of these men are known for taking "race," their "race," and African cultural retention in, and connection to, African American culture seriously. But that is only part of the story. By examining their submerged, hidden, and ignored celebrations of hybridity and irony toward various social identities we will gain illustrations of irony that reinforce my argument that the business of irony is not in destroying social worlds; for Cullen, Du Bois, and Hughes-even with their visions of universal humanism-did not seek the destruction of cultures created in the crucible of the American "racial" politic, and neither do I.
A discussion of Du Bois and irony toward "race" must start with his notion of "double consciousness." Du Bois first gave form to his notion of double consciousness in "The Conservation Of Races;" however, he actually used the phrase and gave it a full treatment in the first chapter, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," of The Souls of Black Folk:
...the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,-a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, -an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
He continued to revisit and use this trope in his later works. Du Bois' notion of double consciousness is generally seen as a psychological depiction of the double identity that is the result of being black in a "white" and anti-black America, and the damaging self-perception that is the result of this peculiar and oppressive state; indeed this reading is illustrated by Du Bois' depiction of double consciousness in his short story "Of the Coming of John," the thirteenth chapter of The Souls of Black Folk.
Although this reading is reading of double consciousness is basically correct, limiting double consciousness to this reading ignores Du Bois' claim that double consciousness is also a "gift." The gift of double consciousness is the knowledge of our and our community's complex heritage, and a consciousness of this complexity. Double consciousness gives us an insight, a critical edge, what Du Bois called a "second sight," into the American "racial" politic that others not in our, or similar, oppressed states-because of their privilege or refusal to see past the constructions of "race" they have erected to serve as boundaries for the maintenance of privilege-do not posses.
Granted that in The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois expresses a desire that the African American would "merge his double self into a better and truer self." The self that would emerge, however, would be hybrid and no less complex. As Du Bois remarked, "[i]n this merging he [the African American] wishes neither of the older selves to be lost." Thus, the "two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings," and "two warring ideals" would be reconciled and united, but the double consciousness, the critical second sight, would remain.
Du Bois's best articulation of the second sight that is gifted to the doubly conscious occurs in his discussion of the construction of whiteness in Darkwater:
High in the tower, where I sit above the loud complaining of the human sea, I know many souls that toss and whirl and pass, but none there are that intrigue me more than the Souls of White Folk.
Of them I am singularly clairvoyant. I see in and through them. I view from unusual points of vantage. Not as a foreigner do I come, for I am native, not foreign, bone of their thought and flesh of their language. Mine is not the knowledge of the traveler or the colonial composite of dear memories, words and wonder. Nor yet is my knowledge that which servants have of masters, or mass of class, or capitalist of artisan. Rather I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know. This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious! They deny my right to live and be and call me misbirth! My word is to them mere bitterness and my soul, pessimism. And yet as they preach and strut and shout and threaten, crouching as they clutch at rags of facts and fancies to hide their nakedness, they go twisting, flying by my tired eyes and I see them ever stripped,-ugly, human.
Being complex, being composed of myriad elements, and being conscious of this fact gives the doubly conscious, those "voices from within the Veil," an ability to see through the Veil, to see the social and the power dynamics that have contributed to its construction, and to see behind the pretensions and tragedies of "race" that it is merely a category of human-"ugly human"-creation.
Both double consciousness and the "second sight" are important for the sort of irony I am trying to promote. Double consciousness and the "vision" it gifts us with enable us to see through constructions of social identities, and to see them as arbitrary, fragile, and contingent creations of human societies; subject, if need be, to human change. Moreover, we can turn these faculties on ourselves, which has the result of continuously reminding us of our essential complexity, and prevents us from encasing ourselves in rigid constructions of "racial" identity.
According to Gilroy, this grander vision is what Du Bois was, at least, alluding to in his discussion of double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk, and would develop in his novel Dark Princess. Indeed, in a few pieces of Du Bois's later fiction, the ideas behind Du Bois's notion of double consciousness are transformed into a robust and ironic philosophy of "race."
Cullen, Hughes, & the Poetics of Irony
The final two figures I shall examine are Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen; both of whom are considered poet laureates of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes's poetry was free verse set in a blues style, while Cullen's followed traditional English forms. Regardless, their work had much in common. Both Cullen and Hughes engaged issues of politics and "race" in their poetry. Both poets, moreover, applied a sense of irony to "race," and even more radically for their age, sexuality-so sublimely that it was ignored or passed over by their critics and readers.
In this section I will explore Cullen and Hughes's use of irony; for their use of it represents an expansion of irony to social identities other than "race." This expansion is important because social identities and oppressions based on them are often interconnected (e.g.,, sexual mores, gender roles, and class stereotypes are "raced" in unique ways in US society), and an application of irony to one may require applications to others.
Criticism and his interpretation of Langston Hughes's work is often marked by a refusal to accept complexity in his depiction and personal experience of "race" and sexuality. Arnold Rampersad, for example, depicts Hughes, without qualification, as a "race" patriot, and, taking issue with those who label Hughes a homosexual, argues that Hughes was asexual and androgynous. Rampersad's interpretation of Hughes, however, is misleading and does violence to the complexity of "race" and sexuality in Hughes's life and works.
Obviously Hughes was not asexual. He did, and even Rampersad concedes, have sex. In fact Hughes had sex with both men and women, and reported it in his personal notes. Someone who has sex is plainly not asexual, and someone who has sex with both genders is, at least technically, bisexual. But beyond this painfully obvious retort to Rampersad, we can make the argument that there is more to sex and sexuality than sexual intercourse. Sexuality is comprised of several factors, and is never simple or cut and dry. In trying to reconstruct the sexual identity of Hughes we need take into account this complexity, and be observant of the alternative methods Hughes expressed his sexuality. Rampersad's resistance to reading the homoerotic in Hughes's poetry, and his labeling Hughes as asexual and androgynous-which really makes no sense since Hughes gender identity is not an issue-is not cautious scholarship, it is evasion.
This evasion is due to Hughes standing as an icon in the African American intellectual tradition. Many folks just have a hard time accepting that the author of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" had sex with other men. The values and mores that surround "race" and sexuality come as a package deal-to resist or transgress one set of values would be to inevitably transgress the other. The fact that the person who wrote:
I've know rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
was transgressive sexually, and thereby "racially," or even just ironic and playful, seems to threaten the chauvinist, traditionalist, and nationalist message some want to see in that poem.
A similar simplification occurs in Rampersad's discussion of Hughes's "race" pride. Hughes was very proud of his blackness, of his being African American, and of his connections real and imaginary with Africa; however, that is not the end of the story. Hughes's conception of African American life was not an ideological abstraction. He accepted fully, as he expresses in The Big Sea, black American life in all its varied shades and incarnations-come what may.
Hughes's view of "race," moreover, was marked with irony and sarcasm. In poems such as "Cross," and "Mulatto," Hughes explores American "racial" hybridity, and white America's involvement in, and denial of, that hybridity:
My old man's a white old man
And my old mother's black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.
If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well.
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I'm gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?
Although Hughes critiqued the history of sexual violence by white men on black women that resulted in much of America's black and white "racial" hybridity, unlike other commentators on miscegenation, such as Malcolm X, he embraced this hybridity, and did not deny familial relations between black and white America: "I am your son, white man!"
Hughes's short story "Who's Passing For Who?," is a particularly good example of an ironic attitude about "race." It is a story that features a "racially" ambiguous couple who fools both whites and blacks about their "racial" identity, to the chagrin of all, during a afternoon in Harlem:
We didn't say a thing. We just stood there on the corner in Harlem dumbfounded-not knowing now which way we'd been fooled. Were they really white-passing for colored? Or colored-passing for white?
This ironic attitude is also present in his autobiography The Big Sea, where he expressed, on one hand, "race" pride and solidarity, and on the other, direct resistance to American "racial" categorization:
She wanted me to be primitive and know and feel the intuitions of the primitive. But, unfortunately, I did not feel the rhythms of the primitive surging through me, and so I could not live and write as though I did. I was only an American Negro-who had loved the surface of Africa and the rhythms of Africa-but I was not Africa. I was Chicago and Kansas City and Broadway and Harlem. And I was not what she wanted me to be.
Appreciation for the richness of life and the complexity of people is evident throughout Hughes's work. To ignore that complexity is to do violence to Hughes's work as an artist. Critics celebrate the appreciation for African connections in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers;" however, not much is said about the theme of movement and travel in that poem. It is a poem about the past, but also about a future connected but not restrained by the past. After all, the river empties into the big sea-and that is where Langston casts his net and pulled: "Life is a big sea full of many fish. I let down my nets and pull."
Hughes was exceedingly private about his sex life, and evasive about his sexuality; and there are many reasons personal and social for that. He did, nevertheless, in a few poems, such as "Cafe: 3 A.M.," and "Poem For F.S.," express homoerotic themes, and irony toward sexual mores and sexuality:
Detectives from the vice squad
with weary sadistic eyes
some folks say.
But God, Nature,
made them that way.
Police lady or Lesbian
Additionally, due to his complex history and the oppressive environment of the 1920's toward queers, it is reasonable to give his seemingly "heterosexual" poems a critical queer reading.
Countee Cullen, like Hughes, both celebrated African American tradition and its continuities with Africa, and subtlety critiqued and pushed it. His poetry, such as "Heritage," "To A Brown Boy," "Tableau," and "She Of The Dancing Feet Sings," displays a sharp ironic edge that not only takes "race," and racism as its targets, but also takes aim, more boldly than Hughes did, at sexuality.
In "Heritage," a poem that is often simplistically cited as an example of Cullen's "race" consciousness, there exists an ever present tension between Cullen's romanticization of a distant and "pagan" Africa, and the painful knowledge that he is not an African:
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
More significantly, in "Tableau," which quote I below, and "To A Brown Boy," Cullen takes aim at "racism," and the constraints of "race" through homoerotic imagery-a multi-layered act of defiance and irony:
Locked arm in arm they cross the way,
The black boy and the white,
The golden splendor of the day,
The sable pride of night.
From lowered blinds the dark folk stare,
And here the fair folk talk,
Indignant that these two should dare
In unison to walk.
Oblivious to look and word
They pass, and see no wonder
That lightning brilliant as a sword
Should blaze the path of thunder.
Cullen and Hughes, like Esu-Elegbara, present ironic depictions of "race" and sexuality, that produce a commerce between these social identities that is healthy for our communities. This commerce, as is the nature of the "race"/class/gender/sexuality transgressive trickster, aids in the continuous formation of new social geographies that emerge out of older more oppressive ones. Cullen and Hughes gift us with a prophetic vision of a world where many boundaries are crossed, and where we disdainful of unimaginative "stares" and "talk," as white and black boys, "dare in unison to walk."
The Irony of it all
I do not intend to be cavalier about "race." It is a difficult and painful subject and in no manner do I minimize or trivialize the experiences of those individuals or communities that have been marked and marred by the American "racial" politic. I recognize the social presence of "race" and its effects. It is not my intent to minimize or make illusory racism or the effect "race" has had on individuals, society, and history.
This is an appropriate point to discuss one last worry about the ironic stance on "race," and other social identities: Is the perspective of irony, a perspective of privilege? In other words, is irony only available to the privileged; those whose interests it is in to not alter the American "racial" politic? As bell hooks states, in the introduction of her Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations:
Working with students and families from diverse class backgrounds, I am constantly amazed at how difficult it is to cross boundaries in this white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society. And it is obviously most difficult for individuals who lack material privilege or higher levels of education to make the elaborate shifts in location, thought, and life experience cultural critics talk and write about as though it is only a matter of individual will.
hooks goes on to state that for "border-crossing" to be available to everyone, "we must dare to envision ways such freedom of movement can be experienced by everyone:" Namely, public policy that alleviates the "lack of material privilege" that prevents some from adopting irony toward social identities. Additionally, Du Bois recognized that double consciousness, although experienced by all African Americans, was most sharply experienced by those who have had the privilege of a higher education.
Granted, that the position of irony is less available to those not privileged with wealth and education; nevertheless there is still a need for its application. My call for irony, therefore, is principally directed to the intelligentsia of society. Scientists, both physical and social, academics, artists, writers, journalists, politicians, and capitalists-those who broker power in our societies-have the primary responsibility to adopt and apply a cautiously ironic stance to "race."
While this troubling subject of "race" demands humility from us, it also, nevertheless, demands to be addressed. What we cannot afford to do is surrender. We cannot surrender to "race" and to hopelessness. We cannot settle for that deep abiding to pessimism that haunts the history of this nation's attempts to deal with the problem of "race." Henry Dumas, expressed this pessimistic sentiment best when he wrote:
Lord, how I wept when I came upon
a land whose people thought that they
could make boats sail the stormy
ocean between the color of my skin
and my humanity.
"Race" in America is utterly depressing, but world making can give us hope. Hope for a better world where "race" has been banished from all of our vocabularies. To actualize such a world we need vision. We need to be able to distance ourselves from our beloved categories and see ourselves as complex beings. We need to be able to see the absurdity of the "racial" politic, and in seeing that absurdity recognize our roles in it and transcend it. Irony does not magic us away from the absurdity; rather, it undermines the absurdity by exhibiting it as such. I think this is what Ralph Ellison was doing in his Invisible Man. And what he meant by his discussion of the "subtle triumph hidden in such laughter" in his introduction of that book:
...given the persistence of racial violence and the unavailability of legal protection, I asked myself, what else was there to sustain our will to persevere but laughter? And could it be that there was a subtle triumph hidden in such laughter that I had missed, but one which still was more affirmative than raw anger?
I agree with Ellison's insight that in the face of the cruel absurdity of this nation's "racial" politic, sometimes the most subversive act we can do is to laugh. We should laugh. We should also listen to the ironic voice within us, the voice of scorching irony, arise, leave the American temple of "racial" identity, with its golden calfs of "racial" purity, and go out into the world.
1 "Laughing to keep from cryin'" is a line from Langston Hughes's autobiography, The Big Sea (1940): 238. Hughes touches on this theme in much of his poetry. See, for example, his poem "Minstrel Man," which is included in his autobiography.
2 From James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953): 262.
3 This seems to be the position of Lucius Outlaw. See his On Race & Philosophy (1996); especially the introductory essay as well as "Going Against The Grain Of Modernity." See also Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cornel West's The Future of the Race (1996).
4 See Naomi Zack's Race And Mixed-Race (1993), and Anthony Appiah's "Race, Culture, Identity: Misunderstood Connections," in Color Conscious (1996).
5 See Michael Omni and Howard Winant's Racial formation in the United States (1994).
6 See Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (1818): 116. Frankenstein's monster is an appropriate metaphor for race: It is of human creation, and it is something that causes tragedy, but yet it is something for which we have sympathy.
7 See Ian Hacking's "World-Making by Kind-Making: Child Abuse for Example," in How Classification (1992), and John Dupre's "Human Kinds" in The Latest On The Best (1987).
8 See Michael Root's Philosophy Of Social Science (1993), and How to Divide the World: Realism and Classification (forthcoming).
9 Illegitimacy, although sufficient, is not a necessary condition for the application of irony.
10 See Ian Hacking's "World-Making by Kind-Making: Child Abuse for Example."
11 See Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), especially chapters 4 through 6. I take the notion of a socially critical perspective from Carole Pateman. In chapter 9 of her Disorder of Woman (1989), she argues for a "socially critical perspective on relationship tradition." This feminist perspective allows women to reflect critically about the category of "woman" and on their relationships with others. Pateman argues this perspective is necessary to avoid oppression within communities and relationships.
12 See Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (734).
13 Ibid. In Rorty's full sense of the term, an ironist is "someone who fulfills three conditions: (1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses..., (2) she realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself...(74)."
14 See Frederick Douglass's "What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?" in The Frederick Douglass Papers Vol. 2 (1982: 371). Douglass used irony as a mode of resistance against the American "racial" politic. He goes further than I, however, for he sees no worth in any conservation of "race."
15 See Appiah's "Race, Culture, Identity: Misunderstood Connections (104)."
16 Ibid (103)
17 See Frederick Douglass's "The Claims Of The Negro Ethnologically Considered in African-American Social & Political Thought: 1850-1920 (1995: 242).
18 I discuss irony in the work of Du Bois, Cullen, Hughes, and Toomer in depth in this and the following sections.
19 James Weldon Johnson's Black Manhattan (1930) is a historical account of the period.
20 For a discussion of the "passing genre," see Deborah McDowell's introduction to Fausset's Plum Bun (1990).
21 Jean Toomer's 1923 novel Cane is his best-known work. The comments of Toomer that I quote in this section come from the commentary and essays that follow the main text in the Norton Critical Edition of Cane (1988).
22 See Zack's Race and Mixed Race (1993), especially chapters 10 and 11 (111).
23 See supra note 20 (125)
24 See supra note 21, especially the sketches "Becky" Blood-Burning Moon," and "Bona and Paul," and his poems "Meridian," and "First American."
25 See supra note 21 (137)
26 See supra note 21 (1289). My italics.
27 See supra note 21 (156). Toomer resisted the "racial" labels society tried to impose on him. Given his mixed heritage he certainly thought he could voluntarily choose his label; however, and more importantly, he rejects all labels, and even the idea of "passing." His project is one of transcending "racial" labels. Despite his resistance he was well aware of the politics and dangers of passing. See, for example, his novel Cane.
28 Ellison's contemporary and friend Albert Murray also expressed an ironic attitude toward "race" and the American "racial" politic. See Murray's The Omni-Americans; new perspectives on Black experience and American Culture (1970).
29 The logo of the paint factory is "Keep America Pure With Liberty Paints." See Ellison's Invisible Man (192).
30 Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1994: 197).
31 Ibid (347)
32 Ralph Ellison's Shadow And Act (1964: 234). Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic (1993) also makes the comparison between Ellison's conception of jazz and "race".
33 See supra note 32 (9)
34 Johnson has a background in phenomenology and his theoretical position is presented in his "Philosophy And Black Fiction," and Being & Race: Black Writing since 1970. Although Johnson is quite playful about "race," he is less so about gender. Further, his depictions of the feminine and feminine desire are misogynist. See Oxherding Tale (1982), and The Middle Passage (1990).
35 See Anthony Appiah's In My Father's House (1993), and his "Race, Culture, Identity: Misunderstood Connections," bell hooks's Art On My Mind (1995), and Outlaw Culture (1994), Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider (1984), Cornel West's Race Matters (1994), and Naomi Zack's Race and Mixed Race.
36 See Cornel West's Race Matters (1501).
37 See James Baldwin's "Here Be Dragons" in The Price of the Ticket (1985: 690).
38 See Robert Pelton's The Trickster in West Africa.
39 See Gates' The Signifying Monkey. See Pelton's The Trickster in West Africa (1980), Robert Farris Thompson's Flash Of The Spirit (1983), and Janheinz Jahn's Muntu (1961) for discussions of the retention of West African trickster myths and folktales in the black Diaspora of the Americas. See also Tricksterism in Turn-Of-The Century American Literature: A Multicultural Perspective (1994), edited by Elizabeth Ammons and Annette White-Parks.
40 See Gates' The Signifying Monkey, especially chapter 1 (1, & 35).
41 See supra note 38 (11)
42 See supra note 38 (11)
43 See supra note 38 (225)
44 See supra note 38 (279)
45 See supra note 38 (221), My italics.
46 The trickster's function of "commerce" is evocative of J.S. Mill's advocacy of eccentricity and his belief in the social utility of individualism as it results in "experiments of living." See the third chapter of Mill's On Liberty (1978).
47 See Ammons and White-Parks' Tricksterism in Turn-Of-The Century American Literature. See also Zora Neale Hurston's Mules And Men (1990) for a catalog of black American folktales that involve various trickster figures signifyin' on "race," and "race" relations.
48 A Dogon proverb; see supra note 38 (164).
49 Quoted from Amiri Imamu Baraka's (Leroi Jones) "The Nation Is Like Ourselves," collected in his It's Nation Time (1970).
50 Paul Gilroy discusses this objection in chapters 1 and 3 of his The Black Atlantic. Lucius Outlaw offers such an objection to "post-modernist" accounts of "racial" identity throughout his On Race and Philosophy.
51 Appiah, in In My Father's House, defines a "racialist" as someone who believes in "racialism": The doctrine "that there are heritable characteristics, possessed by members of our species, which allow us to divide them into a small set of races, in such a way that all the members of these races share certain traits and tendencies with each other that they do not share with members of any other race (13)." Given my project of metaphysical pluralism, I would define a "racialist" as anyone, including myself (although I am an "anti-race racialist"), who believes in the reality of "race." I define a hard-line "racialist" as someone who seeks to conserve "race" into perpetuity.
52 My interpretation of black nationalists, cultural nationalists, "racial" separatists, and other hard-line "racialists" is echoed in Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic, and Charles Johnson's Being & Race. Classic hard-line "racialists" include Martin Delany, Edward Blyden, and Alexander Crummell. Hard-line "racialism" in African American literature is seen in Amiri Imamu Baraka's It's Nation Time, and Henry Dumas's Goodbye Sweetwater (1988), and Knees Of A Natural Man (1989). See especially his short story "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" Hard-line "racialism" is represented in the ideologies expressed by the early Malcolm X, see his The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964), in the work of Maulana Karenga, see for example his "Black Cultural Nationalism" in The Black Aesthetic (1972), and in the work of Molefi Kete Asante, see for example his Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge (1990), and Malcolm X As Cultural Hero And Other Afrocentric Essays (1993). Among the work of black philosophers, Lucius Outlaw's work displays a hard-line "racialism." See the first versions of his "On Race and Philosophy" in the Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 18:2 (1996: 17599), as well as his book On Race and Philosophy.
53 Jorge Garcia gave this objection to me.
54 In the "The Conservation Of Races" in African-American Social & Political (1995: 483-92) Du Bois writes: "Here, then, is the dilemma, and it is a puzzling one, I admit. No Negro who has given earnest thought to the situation of his people in America has failed, at some time in life, to find himself at these cross-roads; has failed to ask himself at some time: What, after all, am I? Am I an American or am I a Negro? Can I be both (488)?"
55 See Du Bois' The Souls Of Black Folk (1993: 9).
56 There are many discussions of the meaning of Du Bois' notion of double consciousness and its intellectual history. I dislike nearly all of the discussions of the genealogy of Du Bois' double consciousness for their tendency to privilege one or another white nineteenth century American scholar as the originator of the idea of double consciousness. It is doubtless that double consciousness has intellectual roots that precede Du Bois, but Du Bois' particular use is distinct and is rooted not in Emerson or James but in the peculiar experience of being a member of the African Diaspora in the New World. Echoes of double consciousness can be seen in the works of Douglass and Equiano. Du Bois would have to go nowhere but to his own experiences as an African American to arrive at his conception of double consciousness; as for the phrase itself, -the label and not the substance, mind you-thank you American philosophy. For a review of the scholarship on Du Bois' double consciousness see Bernard Bell's "Genealogical Shifts in Du Bois's Discourse on Double Consciousness as the Sign of African American Difference" in W.E.B. Du Bois On Race & Culture ( 1996: 87110). The reading of double consciousness I give here has been influenced by Paul Gilroy's interpretation of double consciousness, as given in his The Black Atlantic.
57 For a classic example of this reading of double consciousness see Arnold Rampersad's The Art And Imagination Of W.E.B. Du Bois (1976: 74).
58 Gloria Anzaldúa, in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), discusses a similar capability she calls la facultad: "La facultad is the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface. It is an instant "sensing," a quick perception arrived at without conscious reasoning. It is an acute awareness mediated by the part of the psyche that does not speak, that communicates in images and symbols which are the faces of feelings, that is, behind which feeling reside/hide. The one possessing this sensitivity is excruciating alive to the world.... Those who are pushed out of the tribe for being different are likely to become more sensitized... Those who do not feel psychologically or physically safe in the world are more apt to develop this sense. Those who are pounced on the most have it the strongest-the females, the homosexuals of all races, the darkskinned, the outcast, the persecuted, the marginalized, the foreign.... When we're up against the wall, when we have all sorts of oppressions coming at us, we are forced to develop this faculty so that we'll know when the next person is going to slap us or lock us away. We'll sense the rapist when he's five blocks down the street. Pain makes us acutely anxious to avoid more of it, so we hone the radar. It's a kind of survival tactic that people, caught between the worlds, unknowingly cultivate. It is latent in all of us (39)."
59 See supra note 55 (9)
60 See supra note 55 (9)
61 See supra note 55 (9)
62 See Du Bois's Darkwater (1975: 29), My italics.
63 See the fourth chapter of Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic. In his text, Gilroy argues nationalist and essentialist conceptions of "racial" identity, and argues that Du Bois's conception of "race" as informed by double consciousness is a more accurate depiction of "racial" and ethnic identity. Further, Gilroy argues that having an expansive and hybrid notion of individual and communal identity is fruitful for communicating across difference and coalitional politics. Gloria Anzaldua in Borderlands/La Frontera, takes a similar position.
64 See my "The Prophetic & Pragmatic Philosophy of 'Race' in W.E.B. Du Bois' 'The Comet'," Newsletter on Philosophy and the Black Experience 99:1 (Fall 1999).
65 Another important figure of the Harlem Renaissance who wrote transgressively about "race," gender, and sexuality was Bruce Nugent. See the discussion of Nugent in David Levering Lewis's When Harlem Was In Vogue (1981), Nugent's short story "Smoke, Lilies And Jade anthologized in Black Men/White Men: A Gay Anthology (1983).
66 See Karen Maeda Allman's "(Un)Natural Boundaries: Mixed Race, Gender, and Sexuality" in The Multicultural Experience (1996: 277290). It goes without saying that the trickster tradition I refer to in support of irony toward "race," also natively involves irony toward gender and sexuality; see Gates's The Signifying Monkey (2930).
67 See Arnold Rampersad's The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol.1 (1986).
68 Ibid. See the index entries under "Sexuality of L.H."
70 For more on the evasion of homosexuality in black studies see Kendall Thomas's "'Ain't Nothin' Like The Real Thing': Black Masculinity, Gay Sexuality, and the Jargon of Authenticity." See also Essex Hemphill's interview with Isaac Julien, and his "Undressing Icons," in Brother To Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men. Isaac Julien produced Looking for Langston, an impressionistic "documentary" that explores homosexuality in Hughes's work and in the Harlem Renaissance. Although they suffer from lack of scholarly detail, Looking for Langston, as well as Eric Garber's "T'Ain't Nobody's Bizzness (Homosexuality in 1920's Harlem)," offer a rare glimpse into the significant but hidden bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender world of the Harlem Renaissance.
71 "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," included in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994).
72 "Cross," from The Big Sea (263).
73 From "Mulatto," included in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. See The Autobiography of Malcolm X (260).
74 See Hughes's "Who's Passing For Who?" in Something in Common and Other Stories (1963: 33).
75 See Hughes's The Big Sea (325).
76 This is the epigraph of Hughes's The Big Sea.
77 Hughes's "Cafe: 3 A.M.," from Black Men/White Men: A Gay Anthology. Interestingly, when discussing Hughes's sexuality Rampersad fails to mention this poem, as he fails to include it in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, which he edited.
78 As in scholarship about Hughes, some scholars take contention with the claim that Cullen was homosexual; however, unlike Hughes, there is far more documentation in Cullen's case. David Levering Lewis, in his When Harlem Was In Vogue, Arnold Rampersad, in his The Life of Langston Hughes, and Jean Wagner, in his Black Poets of the United States (1973), directly claim that Cullen was gay. Alan Shucard in his Countee Cullen (1984) gives a respectful nod to Lewis, Rampersad, and Wagner's claims. Gerald Early, however, in his introduction to My Soul's High Song (1991), takes issue with this claim: "There is no evidence that Cullen was engaged in any homosexual relations with any other figures of the Renaissance. Some scholars have read letters and poems that seem suggestive in this regard but have offered nothing conclusive (19)." Although Cullen did not write anything as explicitly homosexual as Bruce Nugent's work, or make such claims as "I am a homosexual," or "I really enjoy having sex with men," Cullen's letters, more than his poetry, are more than suggestive. It is important to remember that Cullen lived in 1920's America, and had his reputation to protect. Cullen was the recipient of financial support from various patrons, had connections to the "respectable" institutions of the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League, and was a member of Harlem's black bourgeoisie, as well as his stepparents' esteemed parish. He had many reasons not to be forthright about his sexuality. Even if Cullen was not homosexual or bisexual, however, he exhibited homoerotic themes in his writings, and to not take this in consideration in the interpretation of his work is impoverished scholarship and intellectual dishonesty. Early's claim is plainly evasive, and his work on Cullen suffers as a result. Likewise, Houston Baker, Jr., in his "A Many-Colored Coat of Dreams," included in his Afro-American Poetics (1988), and Darwin Turner, in his "Countee Cullen: The Lost Ariel," included in his In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity (1971), completely disregard sexuality, except of course heterosexuality, in their discussions of Cullen's work. Even more frustrating, Alan Shucard, in his Countee Cullen, alludes to Cullen's homosexuality (in a footnote), but fails to engage it in his interpretations of Cullen's work. The failure of these critics to take into account Cullen's, at least problematic, sexuality, as well as Hughes', becomes even more unacceptable in light of the fact that they, as is true of scholarship about Cullen generally, spend a great deal of time discussing how Cullen's black identity matters in his work. If identity matters, which I think it does, then why limit consideration of it to "race?"
79 See Houston Baker's "A Many-Colored Coat of Dreams: The Poetry of Countee Cullen," in his Afro-American Poetics.
80 From Cullen's "Heritage," included in My Soul's High Song. Cullen dedicated this poem to Harold Jackman, long-time friend, travel companion, and who is thought to have been Cullen's lover; see Lewis's When Harlem Was In Vogue (767).
81 "Taleau" by Countee Cullen; originally included in his 1925 collection of poetry Color (1925), and included in his collected works, My Soul's High Song. In contrast to my reading, and Rampersad, Lewis, and Wagner's, Houston A. Baker Jr., in "A Many-Colored Coat of Dreams," refers to the "male" imagery in "Tableau" as a scene depicting "the natural camaraderie of youth (65)." Given, the boys in the poem are youths, but Baker's implication of an asexual relationship (what if the boys were adolescent?) between them is an impoverished reading. I would remind Baker that as much of a taboo in the US was black and white fraternization, it was and still is taboo for males, young or old, to conspicuously display physical affection. Therefore, the white and black folk in "Tableau" are shocked by the boys' physical display of affection, as well as their "interracial" relationship. Alan Shucard, despite his recognition of Cullen's sexuality, sees the boys' affection as a symbol of "brotherly love (58)." Additionally, Shucard goes on to interpret Cullen's many love poems with heterosexual assumptions. While Shucard and Baker are both, in some ways, insightful about Cullen, their failure to grasp his and his works complexity, in regards to sexuality, represent fatal shortcomings in their critiques of Cullen's poems.
82 From Cullen's "Taleau," included in My Soul's High Song.
83 See Hook's "Introduction: The Heartbeat of Cultural Revolution," in Outlaw Culture (5); she also expresses similar sentiments in her essay "Being the Subject of Art," in Art on My Mind: Visual Politics.
85 See chapter 1 of Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (910), and chapter 7 of his Dusk of Dawn (173).
86 "Thought" by Henry Dumas, it is included in Knees Of A Natural Man: The Selected Poetry of Henry Dumas (92).
86 See p. xxv, in the introduction of Ellison's Invisible Man.