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What happens when identity returns to crumble our defenses.
It is a sign of our sleek, postmodern era, of our strange political times, that Hilton Als, a black man, has given us a book called White Girls.
The title points to a vaporous sensibility that clings to a number of black men—Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson, Als himself—but also to people like Flannery O’Connor and Louise Brooks, “white girls” whom we, the pedantic masses, might consider white women. White girls romp through the world with all the giddy entitlement of their race, pulling faces at our pieties and lumbering idées fixes. They look with bored distaste on our categories, are deaf to our shrill verdicts—but, being girls, they are all too often choked by the rough hand of power, which dotes on and destroys them.
This, at least, is my understanding. Als makes frequent use of his title, but displays a chic reluctance to define it, lest the thudding particulars chip the varnish of his prose—or worse, dull his glittering white girl ethos. A staff writer at The New Yorker since 1989, he has fashioned himself as a wry stenographer of culture, jotting down its customs and controversies, sometimes weighing in on the subject of race. He is fond of glamor, of myths, and he savors the fantasies that dance around the brute facts of class and color. So these are “white girls” of a different sort: not of mere flesh and blood, but in spirit.
The essays that make up this knotty, occasionally brilliant, and often fatiguing volume—some of which have appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books—range from magazine profiles to Als’ preferred form, the critical essay buried under wooly layers of memoir. He’s an omnivorous critic, in the manner of Barthes or early Sontag, taking as his subject our whole screeching, flailing culture—both high and low—and he takes a special pleasure in the illicit union of the two. Norman Mailer and William S. Paley are “men, who, by all accounts, did not want to be fucked by any idea of femininity that had fucked them up but to fuck their idea of femininity.” Als delights in these sly shifts in register, wobbling between stately disquisition and modish, pop-ish frill.
White Girls is about what happens when identity returns to crumble our defenses.
This collection stands as a monument to masculine women, uppity Negroes, gaudy nouveaux riches—to anyone who dares to make culture interesting by deviating from its corny script, anyone who swipes at our good taste and bad faith. As a black man trespassing in New York’s literary milieu, Als counts himself among these cheeky discontents, at one point assuming the voice of his white editors: “Tell me about yourself, meaning, Tell me how you’ve suffered. Isn’t that what you people do? Suffer nobly, even poetically sometimes?”
Note how quickly the singular pronoun—“yourself”—is smeared to a sloppily rendered plural—“you people.” Yes, how does it feel to be a black intellectual wading through the white, gawking creative classes? Lonely, surely, and yet hardly alone—the spectacle of one’s suffering, the historical suffering of one’s “people,” trails behind in grim procession, waiting to be catalogued and consumed by the people with the money. The role of the black artist, then, is that of the strident truth-teller, one who addresses the white establishment with the usual fist-shaking recriminations—which only exalts it, of course, by flattering its generosity, what Als calls “white people exercising their largesse in my face.” For him, the latest insult to black writers is the cunning condescension that pervades this smug, liberal age. Minorities are not to be turned away, but brought sparingly, tastefully into culture—dabs of color on its lily-white canvas.
• • •
When these writers of a color are embraced—it is wrong. The world is too quick to celebrate their wearing of the mask of piety, behind which they sit, writing nothing. These writers of a color often center on the figure of Mom, say, as a symbol of piety—she of an oppressed race, depressed sex, and the bad men who didn’t love her and how meek and self-sacrificing she was and what shape her mask of piety took and just how big her lap was—which the child, the writer, knew the measure of because of crapping in it.
“Philosopher or Dog?” is a speculative biography of Louise Little, mother to Malcolm X, and is studded with the usual fixations: the hollow rhetoric of racial inclusion, the gutless opportunism of certain black writers, the figure of Mom. (Als’ last book, The Women, is devoted in large part to his own black mother. Like White Girls, it splices memoir and manifesto as it delineates a certain habit of being—in this case, of being a Negress.)
But here we bear witness to another, sneering Als, one with a predilection for bitter pomposity. It is all very well to condemn the cynical logic of tokenism, but there is something dismissive, disdainful even, in how he rattles off that litany—“oppressed race, depressed sex,” and so on—as if the trials of blacks, of women, endure only as limping clichés, rather than as coarse, unromantic realities played out in our drably un-literary world. This isn’t just a scrap of careless prose, but a feeling that ripples through the book. He reduces an entire generation to the scribbled shapes of caricature; no nostalgia here for “the heyday of racial and gender politics,” with its “black women with bad hairdos or turbans,” “dwarves with splintered toenails,” and “complaint about dead white men.”
He denounces “feminist agitprop.” He has no patience for the Black Nationalists of old, the marching brethren who serve as a kind of ideological set dressing for his childhood in Brooklyn. And with an air of patronizing irony, he opens a section with the words, “Blame it on capitalism”—a nod to the petulant minority, who bore him with whimpering critiques. (One sometimes wonders if by “white girls” he means Marie Antoinette.) So if Als has grievances against the current social order, they are never uttered in the gruff tones of militancy. Indeed, he seems to inch away from politics and its wearying demands, adopting in his personal essays a tender, if effete, melancholy as he recounts his humiliations at the hands of members of New York’s cultural elite. Questions of race and class are not indelible, operatic assaults on the psyche, but trace elements swirled into minute, grimacing exchanges—a diary of barbed remarks.
It is with some defiance, perhaps, that Als has chosen the rarefied parlors of the literati over the echoing halls of history. It may be his project—though he might cringe at such an earnest, ponderous word—to sully the illusion of the black man—grumbling victim, allegorized into oblivion—and to reclaim black interiority in a way that ruffles our well-ordered, hypersensitive feathers. In “A Pryor Love,” which profiles the comic Richard Pryor, the onstage persona is trickled through the mottled details of his life. Pryor’s is less a story of forbearance and reckless courage than a sensuous chronicle of American neurosis—drugs and poverty, yes, but also the hysteria of fame. Pryor is a white girl who lusts for other, literal, white girls, perhaps because he sees in them his own coiled, quivering vulnerability. And if in his work Pryor “played the race card, it was only to show how funny he looked when he tried to shuffle the deck.” One might say the same of Als: that his goal is not to make the personal political, but rather to ensure the personal’s righteous, absolute conquest of all that would constrict or dissolve it. So the whole crass business of politics, of “representation,” is greeted with genteel dismay.
It is, generally, a noble pursuit to deface stereotypes, to squirt complexity on the blank expanse of received wisdom. But at times, Als risks abandoning one vacuous ideology only to serve another: the easy arrogance that marks the current taste for all things “post-racial.” Ours is a ruthless, unequal society that waits eagerly—indeed, with foot-tapping impatience—to be absolved by those it exploits, and in jeering at the bristling culture warriors, he might be doing a favor to their foes: those who insist that feminism is an anachronism, race irrelevant, and that we need only drown out the bleating of the so-called dispossessed to see that we have, at last, entered an equal, peaceable age.
• • •
This, of course, is not quite what Als means. In his retreat from politics, he casts his loneliness as merely romantic, his melancholia as private, his wounds as due less to DuBoisian “double consciousness” than to the story of his own solitary soul. “Triste Tropiques,” the first and longest piece, anchors the concerns of the book’s later, more belletristic essays firmly in memoir, as it chronicles the pained relation between Als and a man he loves, SL. Short for “Sir or Lady,” the alias bears a kind of talismanic significance, as it marks Als’ contempt for—and preoccupation with—the confines of race and sex: “By the time we met we were anxious to share our black American maleness with another person who knew how flat and not descriptive those words were since they did not include how it had more than its share of Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker in it, women who passed their ‘white girlhood’ together.” Als raises the question of identity only to slap it back down, as he trades in his black manhood—burdened as it is by overtones of violence and oppression—for the wispy nonchalance of Gatsby’s heroines. These are prototypical white girls who traipse through a lush, fictional world and who, like Als perhaps, glimmer beyond the established order. They enrapture and enrage it.
SL, we learn, cannot return Als’ love. Or if he does, it’s as a friend and confidant, not a lover. Yet they have a “twinship,” as Als calls it, a “we.” The essay is a delicate mapping of that “we,” a word that reaches over the high walls of Als’ incorrigible solitude, but only just. This is not the “we” of racial solidarity, the “we” that Als deplores for its plodding simplicity, but a “we” that marks a single, wavering step towards something other, greater than oneself. SL and Als navigate the same hostile, belittling environment, propelled less by a grand sense of racial triumphalism than by their private dreams of art.
It is, generally, a noble pursuit to deface stereotypes, but Als risks abandoning one vacuous ideology only to serve another.
SL makes movies, falls in love with movies, launches Als into rather cinematic flurries of resentment and loss—“I’m off his screen, apparently.” And the cinema itself, with its flickering pictures projected upon a blank face, becomes an elegant—though familiar—motif for the essay, for the book. Colors and figures are splattered against the screen only to be washed away by the next scene, as if by a breaking wave. Only in this celluloid landscape can a man become a girl, a black become a white, and all of us flee this dark, cruel world, strewn with its politics and craven morons and whatever else Als would have us forget, as we abscond into the world of luminous surfaces. In “GWTW,” Als recalls seeing Gone With the Wind as a child and shuddering at the black people in the cast; he is there for the pearly Vivien Leigh, not for the dark, miserable figures who populate this, his vulgar reality. Of one “brown-faced, oily-skinned carpetbagger,” he says:
I hated him then because he intruded on the beautiful pink world. Leigh’s girlishness could have smothered me; I would have made her forget that I was colored and that she could lynch me if she wanted to because I knew I could make her love me. But how do you get people to ignore their history? I never thought of those things when I had love on my mind.
So White Girls, for all of its smirking insouciance, is about what happens when identity returns to crumble our defenses; to dispute the claims of blackness is still to be addressed by them. The insistence of the writer betrays the persistence of his race, and the book carries on in a state of aching exasperation. It flits between individualist indulgence and the cringing acknowledgement that to be black in America is, in a way, to be the subject—the object—of sustained, merciless scrutiny, to be peered at from cruising patrol cars or hoisted up as an exemplar of the race.
That others, too, find themselves acting out this elaborate state of contradiction—between feeling and representing—is the book’s twisting premise. Truman Capote, subject of “The Women,” crafts a coy, feminine persona for himself that floats like perfume from the photograph on his book jacket, but he resorts to macho posturing upon the publication of In Cold Blood. Flannery O’Connor, whose work is spangled with Christian allusion, develops a feel for the grain of country speech and the visceral power of spiritual grace; though she trembles before the face of God, she devotes much of her fiction to capturing the earthy tragicomedy that unfolds between Southern Blackness and Southern Whiteness, the mechanisms of attraction and repulsion from which emerge an entire, sordid social order. Als’ essay on her, “This Lonesome Place,” is one of the book’s glories. Its final paragraph contains what might be Als’ motto, as it describes the preposterous equipoise that we must, as products of a sprawling, ludicrous history, maintain: “her uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars.” It was a delicate balance, borne of compromise and privilege, always teetering on the brink of bigotry. Als relates the story of O’Connor, visionary though she was, politely declining to meet James Baldwin in Georgia in 1959: “I observe the traditions of the society I feed on—it’s only fair.”
• • •
[James Baldwin’s] Just Above My Head is not a perfect novel; fiction that is politically engaged is always less elegant than reactionary fiction, which lavishes on form the attention a progressive literature must also devote to content.
This is not Als, but Edmund White. Ignore, for a moment, the grandiosity of this pronouncement—the strange arrogance of that “always”—and you’ll catch a glimpse, perhaps, of the hopes and fetishes that lend White Girls its shambling shape. To be “elegant,” to fawn over “form”; these are the sparkling luxuries of those artists with no civic cross to bear. But how does one turn the muck of political degradation—the lot of blacks, of gays—into the ether of pure art?
While the content of White Girls loops around the notion of race (albeit in a tense, reluctant orbit), its style suggests not a black literary lineage, but a gay one. Black literature of the last century—to summarize recklessly—strove boldly for recognition, adopting the declamatory timbre of righteous demand and overdue respect. This is what Als dubs the “modern ur-text of blackness,” the vaunted canon of Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. But before it gathered under the sign of “pride,” the culture of male homosexuality was, in Lord Alfred Douglas’ mythic phrase, “the love that dare not speak its name.” It unfurled in the shadows, devising arcane, coded gestures and winking inversions, whispering promises of camaraderie and sex. “It’s the queers who made me,” Als announces in “Buddy Ebsen,” and these words lead nearly every paragraph, chanted like a prayer, or a pledge. At its most graceful, his prose comports itself with campy aplomb, bedecked in the trills of a Wayne Koestenbaum or the florid malice of a Jean Genet. Take the rich texture of this sentence: “My body and soul were a sewer, briny and foul with sexiness.” And his memoiristic impulse, how he relives the erotics of childhood, may very well draw an affinity to Edmund White, a devotee of Marcel Proust. And who but “the queers” would think to anoint as “white girls” all who shimmer and seduce? Who else could manage this tweaking of our orthodoxies, such a deliberate muddling of terms?
It is possible, though, that this seduction twinkles a bit too far off, that the foretaste of art and the beau monde have only made the earthbound realities—of resentment, of race—more biting and unbearable to those white girls who happen to be black. In his profile of Vogue editor André Leon Talley, Als paints a figure of doomed regality, a black man swanning around in the world of fashion—and it strikes us as an aching, oblique self-portrait. From “The Only One”:
In the media or the arts, the only one is usually male, always somewhat ‘colored,’ and almost always gay. His career is based, in varying degrees, on talent, race, nonsexual charisma, and association with people in power. To all appearances, the only one is a person with power, but is not the power.
This pithy passage sums up the brutal taxonomies by which so much culture is sorted. Talley and Als are precariously placed, fiddling with our notion of the black man: Talley carries himself with grandeur of an empress, while Als reclines into the aesthete’s worldly disenchantment. A question, though, for these brooding tokens, these wistful ambassadors, these lustrous “only ones”: is this the only way?
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