Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"An affaire of civilization, not biology"

Since our blog was bound to hit the big race subject, I might as well take the opportunity to recall Aimé Césaire's position, which is that "négritude" or "nègre" had always been about culture and civilization instead of "race." Césaire was a black intellectual who was consistently appalled by biological arguments. Therefore, from the point of view of Martiniquan intellectuals of the 1930s, the Martiniquan bourgeoisie was essentially "white" - black skin, white masks, since they rejected indigenous culture, oppressed the under-privileged blacks, and worse of all, identified with the French bourgeoisie. At the same time, the "white" Surrealists were considered more "nègre" than the black bourgeoisie, because they condemned colonialism and believed in the value of the "l'âme primitive" or the "primitive soul," which translates into the valorization of poetic, imagistic form of thinking and a kind of spontaneous defiance against all forms of instrumental thinking. (After the sixth or seventh time of reading André Breton's homage to Césaire and Césaire's memory of Breton, I still cannot help being moved at the thought that when, once in a blue moon, a great white poet meets a great black poet and they recognize each other as great poets, all the skin colors of the world explode into a million stars.)

As a student of "primitivism" and the avant-garde, I almost want to say that the terms "primitive" and "soul" as understood by Césaire and his friends in the 1930s and 1940s do much to clarify our accursed discourse about race and skin color these days. Césaire was very explicit about the non-equivalence between "primitive" and "Africa," because primitive actually meant a certain phase in a civilization. For this reason, primitive Greece - as opposed to Hellenistic Greece - was more interesting to Césaire. Of course, this might sound like a very European/Caribbean discourse, but my homework in this domain has suggested that the Harlem Renaissance intellectuals did not think much differently. The "soul" of the black folk had to be valorized and articulated: this was the message of DuBois and someone whom I admire deeply, that is to say the philosopher Alain Locke. (Gale, can you add from the point of view of the Americanist?)

I was just reading Simone Weil's diatribe against the moral decadence of the Roman Empire and how (she argues) it corrupted the entire western civilization by co-opting Christianity, stamping out the "primitive" cultures of the Mediterranean as well as the Celtic lands, and left imperial vestiges to feed future totalitarian inspirations. Obviously, I am not qualified enough in the antiquities to dispute with her as to whether ancient Rome was truly the first Hitlerian regime that oppressed all peoples for the sake of grandeur and let innocent human blood flow for mere pleasure (the gladiators). However, the Christian in me has to recognize that there is something morally equivocal with empires (including China), and, historically, we cannot dispute the fact that fascism both in Italy and Germany dreamed of resuscitating the grandeur of the empire whose summit in the European part of the world was achieved by no other than ancient Rome. (By the way, Rome just went to the neo-fascists after 65 years of left-wing dominion. Reason to worry?)

Where am I going with this? I believe that the meaning of the terms "black" and "white" are (hopefully) changing in America so that they could again embody the moral connotations that they had in the 1930s. The most important thing about the humorous blog "Stuff White People Like" is that it reveals unmistakably that "white" is, as Césaire says, "une affaire de civilisation, pas de race." "White" does not mean having pale skin; instead, it refers to a certain bourgeois mediocrity. This mediocrity consists of materialist complacency, thirst for consumption, a false morality that consists ultimately of putting themselves above others ("pretty" social causes such as universal health care and global warming to be discussed over organic dinners), emotional stinginess, incapacity to understand spirituality other than what can give immediate pleasures (decor, massage, therapy). This kind of moral laziness is understood to be "white," in which case we can easily imagine persons of any skin color turning "white" simply by virtue of being alienated from the essential matters of human life: birth, old age, illness, death.

All this means that whether Obama is white or black is and has to be more complicated than how we used to judge white and black in my very multi-ethnic high school. (Asians who listened to "Offspring" were considered white, Indians who played basketball and listened to hip-hop were "black," and so forth.) We have to start asking the questions: What does it mean to be "white" in America? What does it mean to be "black" in America? As a relatively new American whose people happened to not have shared the history of slavery and colonialism, I consider it far from evident that all aspects of "white" culture are to be rejected, just as no one would dream (I hope) of denying the African-American heritage in this wonderful country called the United States of America. The Anglo/Germanic-American form of Christianity might be drab at times, but I am not sure that it does not contain elements capable of rivaling the grandeur of African-American hymnals (represented by the incomparable "Were You There?"). After all, can we imagine calling J.S. Bach's Kantatas "white"?

All in all, I believe that as Americans, we are in the extraordinary position of transcending white racism as well as black nationalism. If we cannot aspire for the kind of universality that Christianity has achieved (same doctrines, same creed, different tunes, different beats), let us at least dream of achieving a kind of "same nationality, different skin colors, different historical experiences" that the word "America"still rings for me.

1 comment:

gale said...

What is it with the Caribbean? The Third World's Third World. Fanon, CLR James, and Cesaire all come from this place of mixing, societies created alongside modernity in the West. Perhaps even serving as the West's deep subconscious, as Bronte's mysterious creole woman-in-the-attic would have us think.

Also, everyone should read Cesaire's "Discourse on Colonialism."