Pym

June 17, 2012

In Pym, Mat Johnson has created a wildly satirical novel that takes a tremendous bite right into the heart of American civilization – slavery and its racial aftermath.  You don’t have to be a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, or have read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Nantucketer to like this book, but it does add another delicious dollop of cultural allusion and dissection to it.  The book stands on its own as the very darkly hilarious (Any metaphorical use of light/white and dark/black have to be tentative in discussing this book, lest one become part of its subject!) riff on Poe’s only novel-length work, American history, and race, not to mention contemporary American taste as exemplified by The Painter of Light.

The narrator of the tale is Chris Jaynes, an African-American scholar of American Literature, who can’t hack it in the tenure track of Academe.  He confronts the president of the small college that has canned him in a very funny scene, only to retreat, humbled, after ripping off the man’s bow-tie. It’s a clip-on job:  appearances, appearances.  Obsessed by Poe’s tale of Pym and his perilous adventures in Antarctica,  and convinced it has a profound racial subtext, he strikes pay dirt when he comes into possession of an authentic manuscript written by one of the tale’s characters.  It isn’t fiction, it’s fact!  What a scoop!  He manages to scrape together the funds for an expedition to Antarctica to get to the bottom of it all.

The story of Arthur Gordon Pym involves cannibalism, and the drawing of straws to determine the victim, strange, gigantic figures of perfect white, devilish black natives of a strangely warm land in the antarctic, known as Tsalal, who fiendishly dispose of most of the white visitors, and it is enigmatically broken off at the end.  Pym cleverly mimics and inverts much of the narrative, substituting street-wise jive for Poe’s absurdly melodramatic prose.  It also displays much wonderful deadpan humor: In this passage, the narrator, having discovered the real Arthur Pym, miraculously still alive after more than a century, tries to talk to him:

“I’m a Natucketer,” he replied.

“Well, are your family landowners?”  At this, the supposed Nantucketer shook his head with enthusiasm and then annoyance that I would even question that fact.

“Well, you’ve been gone awhile, things have gone up in value,” Nathaniel followed, and this time Pym deigned to hear him directly.  “Land in Nantucket sells for about two million, two hundred thousand an acre on today’s market.  You probably have quite an estate to attend to.”  Already growing a bit more alert, at the sound of the figure Pym’s eyes seemed to gain a greater level of consciousness.  The ghost of a man leaned in toward me.

“Is this true?” he muttered.

“Yes, it is,” I told him, relieved that we finally seemed to be getting closer to an actual conversation.

“In a world where people would pay so much for sand,” Pym started, clearly awed by the thought of this, “how much did these niggers cost you?”

Pym, who is a caricature of Poe himself, in this story at least, generates a lot of humor by saying in a completely nonchalant way things that are, today, completely outrageous – but they weren’t in the ante bellum USA.  And among some people today, they probably are not yet.  The characters on the expedition, all black, are thrown up against their own notions of race and class, and their status as free men and women when they are taken on as slaves by a race of giant, antarctican white hairy ape creatures.  And then there is that painter who has created his own pleasure dome down there, but who becomes part of the conflict.  It all gets pretty crazy:  it’s reminiscent of the best parts of The Planet of the Apes.

Well, race, and slavery based on race, is a crazy idea, but as we like to forget, it is what the Hispanic and Anglo empires built North American civilization with.  And though it ended with the Civil War (not really with the Emancipation Proclamation, but with the abolition of slavery by individual states, starting with, of all places, Texas, as commemorated this week with Juneteenth), Reconstruction saw to it that much of its cultural apparatus remained intact for another hundred years.  And what was it all based on?

As the narrator of Pym reflects on the One Drop Rule at several points, it is clear that it is based on power pure and simple.  What can you make of a rule that says that a person is “black” if they have one drop of black blood in them, no matter how white they look?  Logical, in a sick way, on the face of it, but why does it run only in one direction?  In today’s NYTimes, there was an article about Michelle Obama’s ancestor in the ante bellum South, a woman slave who had a child by the son of her owner.  So, why isn’t Michelle Obama white by a One Drop Rule?

Weelll…the One Drop Rule only goes one way, except, perhaps, in a society where everyone is black…like Tsalal, for example.  Which is where the expeditionary crew in Pym ends up, with predictable consequences for Arthur Gordon Pym.  It’s the ultimate literary irony of the book.  And just how did the writer ever get his manuscript to print, anyway..?

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Jerry Leiber, R.I.P.

August 23, 2011

Jerry Leiber, of the fabulous song writing duo, Leiber and Stoller, died yesterday.  They wrote a huge selection of tunes that became hits and have stayed in the popular imagination through endless covers and recycling in soundtracks, commercials, and ‘classic rock’ playlists.  The most famous was their “You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog,”  made a huge hit by Elvis, in an interpretation they reportedly did not like, but originally created for the Blues singer, Big Momma Thornton.

How two Jewish guys, one from New York, one from Los Angeles, got together and learned, loved, and exported to the world the essence of American Black music is one of those mysteries and wonders of American cultural history.   They were funny guys, too.  In a TV documentary series about the writers of the legendary Brill Building, they quipped when asked about their socializing with African-Americans at a time when that was not at all a common thing for white people:

“We didn’t believe in interracial dating:  we only dated black girls.”


Fully Slaved

November 11, 2010

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Reading Marcus Rediker’s book, The Slave Ship: A Human History, I learned of the Liverpool Seamen’s Revolt of 1775.  The slave ship owners decided to seriously cut the wages of the crews, and the sailors responded with a labor rebellion.  They cut down the rigging from the ships, looted the homes of the rich slavers, commandeered canon and bombarded the Exchange, headquarters of the city elite.  It was noted that the rebels, violent and destructive as they were, treated most people decently, reserving their rage for the directors of the slave trade.  They were finally put down by the military after a few days. They were protesting against their awful treatment by the controllers of the slave trade, not the trade itself.

The term “fully slaved,” refers to a slave ship (slaver) that has its full complement of human cargo and is ready to sail for the Americas.  The process of acquiring slaves took months, and the toll on the captives waiting below deck, as well as the sailing crew subject to sickness, was terrible.  Rediker’s book details all aspects of life aboard a slaver and the economic and political web that surrounded them.  It makes for horrifying reading – the first time I delved into this subject in detail.  It also adds a lot to my reading of Melville’s Benito Cereno and Eugene Sue’s Atar Gull. The book is quite repetitive, and not too well-organized, but the depth of scholarship is amazing.

In the course of his narrative, Rediker touches at length on John Newton, the author of  the hymn “Amazing Grace.”  He points out that Newton did not speak out against slavery until nearly thirty years had passed after he left the trade.  Moreover, his famous conversion to evangelical religion took place while he worked the trade, and did not prevent him from continuing profitably in it, believing he was following God’s path.

Better late than never.

The images below are of an old movie theatre in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that startled me the first time I drove by it years ago.


When the [Black] Saints Go Marchin’ In

September 12, 2010

I took a break from my diet of  40’s and 50’s noir to venture into contemporary cinema, and landed in Get Low a movie about a curmudgeon hermit with a terrible secret he longs to get off his chest.  The actors, Duvall and Spacek, are fine, but the film was dull:  it might have made a good short.  But I want to comment on the figure of the black preacher, Charlie Jackson, that Felix (Duvall) goes to for help with his redemption. Felix wants to throw a funeral party, for himself, while he’s alive, and he wants Charlie to do the formalities.

Long ago, Felix was involved in a destructive love affair, and he took on the hermit’s life out of shame for his actions, but before he retired from the world, he roamed a bit, and used his amazing carpentry skills to build a church for Charlie and his black congregation.  Now, Charlie is the one he wants to preach at his ‘funeral.’  Charlie plays the role often seen in American television and movies of the perfect [black] man.

Judges, wise, older counselors, loving and understanding grandmothers who set everything right – even oracles who know all before it happens, these are the roles in which we often see African Americans.  Of course, they play lots of other roles too, but this sort of odd tokenism is limited to them, I think.  What does it mean?  Is it a way of sentimentalizing them as opposed to dealing with them as real people?  Is it a superficial working out of guilt over the centuries of slavery and Jim Crow, similar to the sentimentalizing of Native Americans?  In this film, it serves to heighten the individuality and outsider nature of Felix – in the early 20th century in Tennessee, he built a black church!  Sort of like a saint who goes and does good works in a leper colony.

And Charlie is a good guy.  He’s a cranky old codger, sort of humorous, and the two white characters who fetch him are amused by his crotchetiness.  He speaks well, and is the voice of wisdom, at first refusing to participate until Felix will confess on his own, but then relenting out of higher humanity.

The pure fantasy of all this becomes jarring when he speaks at the party to a crowd of rural folks who have come, almost every last one of whom is white.  They listen respectfully.  Huh!?  This is circa 1930 rural Tennessee.  A black preacher speaking at the ‘funeral’ of a white man?  I imagine the actual reaction would have been more along the lines of “Who the hell is that N—–, and who let him in here?”  The reviewer linked in the first paragraph, a child of the South, seems to agree.

So, perhaps that is the role of the saintly black men and women.  Now we know that they are as human as we are, and we leave no doubt about that by showing them as perfect, even in historical situations where nobody felt that way at all.  And we can all dream that it really was that way.  So the way people are now, which is partly the result of those times, isn’t something we need to think about too much.


Gates arrest: What are the odds?

July 24, 2009

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Let’s see.  Louis Gates, a senior citizen, renowned professor at Harvard, walking with a cane, is arrested by the Cambridge police in his own home, for…shouting at a cop?  He violated the first rule of encountering the police force:  never antagonize an officer.  Still, what are the odds he would have been arrested if he hadn’t been black?  Much smaller, I’d say, but not zero!


White makes right?

July 3, 2009

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The recent court case reversing the lower court decision on a discrimination suit by New Haven firemen got me thinking.  The white firemen claim that they were unfairly denied promotions when the department changed the exam and readministered it, hoping to get more minority-group officers in place.  It seems to me that their case is based on the assumption that they have a right to be promoted, which was, I believe, the gist of Justice Ginzburg’s dissent.

Let’s see…a racially and ethnically diverse city, New Haven, decides that it should have a fire department that reflects its citizenry.  Okay.  They have an all-white department, so they start recruiting non-white candidates.  Okay.  They have no success, so they say, “We are not getting the result we want.  We have to change our recruiting policies.”  Nobody has a problem with that.

So they change, and the nature of the firefighting force changes.  But all the captains are white.  They feel they have a qualified pool of minority firemen, but none of them pass the test.  So they change the test.  The white firemen sue.

There seems to be an assumption current that the test was “dumbed down.”  I don’t think any evidence for that was presented.  The only other reason to challenge the action of the department is if you support the notion that the firemen who first passed the test have a right to be promoted.  Maybe there is a legal-contractual issue here, e.g., it is not allowed to refuse promotion once the test is passed, etc., but I don’t think so.  Why do they have any more of a right than any other group in the department?  Isn’t the policy of the department more important?

It reminds me of the suits brought by white students against universities when they fail to gain admission to a prestigious law or medical school.  The claim is that a qualified white student was refused to offer a seat to a non-white person.  The implication is that the minority student was not qualified, often simply because his or her SAT scores were lower.  (How the one-to-one association between who is refused and who is admitted is made is unclear to me!)  Here again, the assumption is that the white student has the right to a seat that has been stolen.  This is presumptuous.