For someone so utterly unsentimental and sternly rational about race and blackness, he indulged his wife’s strange neoessentialist belief in “hybrid vigor”—that is, her belief that their daughter’s racial fusion of black and white represented the birth of a new, superior race.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2019-09-19 23:04Z by Steven

He [George Schuyler] was a man of contradictions. For someone so utterly unsentimental and sternly rational about race and blackness, he indulged his wife’s [Josephine Cogdell] strange neoessentialist belief in “hybrid vigor”—that is, her belief that their daughter’s racial fusion of black and white represented the birth of a new, superior race. With Schuyler’s help, his wife turned their only daughter into a social experiment, raising Philippa on a scientifically prepared diet of raw meat, unpasteurized milk, and castor oil, and keeping her in near isolation from other children. The child’s strange upbringing was both a raging success and a terrible failure. Philippa learned to read at two, became an accomplished pianist at four, and a composer by five. She was a child celebrity, a kind of black Shirley Temple with a high IQ who became the subject of scores of articles in publications such as Time, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, and was roundly hailed as a genius. There is a poignant moment in Kathryn Talalay’s biography of Philippa Schuyler, Composition in Black and White, when Philippa is thirteen and her parents finally show her the detailed scrapbook they’ve been keeping about her upbringing and career—notes and articles they’ve been keeping diligently over the years. Philippa, rather than being touched, was horrified to realize, with sudden clarity, all the ways she’d been her parents’ social experiment and “puppet.” In the years that followed, she grew increasingly disillusioned with America, her own blackness, and the musical career of her youth. Like a character out of Black No More, she eventually changed her name and began to pass as white—as an Iberian-American named Filipa Montera. She spent most of her adult life overseas, still playing music, but less seriously, and trying to find herself in various romantic affairs. She eventually tried to reinvent herself as an international journalist and children’s advocate, and in 1967 she died in a helicopter crash while attempting to evacuate war orphans out of Vietnam.

Danzy Senna, “George Schuyler: An Afrofuturist Before His Time,” The New York Review of Books, January 19, 2018. https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/01/19/george-schuyler-an-afrofuturist-before-his-time/.

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George Schuyler: An Afrofuturist Before His Time

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2019-09-17 17:18Z by Steven

George Schuyler: An Afrofuturist Before His Time

The New York Review of Books
2018-01-19

Danzy Senna


Jacob Lawrence: Harlem Street Scene, 1942
Private Collection/Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images/The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The first time I read George Schuyler’s 1931 novel, Black No More, it confused and unsettled me. Black No More is based on a fantastical, speculative premise: What if there were a machine that could turn black people permanently white? What if such a machine were invented in and introduced to 1920s America, a time of both increasing racial pride and persistent racial violence? What would the social and political implications be of such a race-reversal machine? What would it reveal about society? What lies and hypocrisies about blackness and whiteness and American identity would be revealed by the chaos that would ensue?

I was in college at the time I first read the book, and not quite ready for its cynical, almost misanthropic vision of race and society.

I had just reached that stage of racial identity that psychologist William Cross, in his 1971 “Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience,” called “immersion.” The immersion stage (number three of five) is when you eat, drink, and excrete blackness. It’s when you bite off the head of anybody who questions whether you, no matter how high your yellow, are anything less than Afrika Bambaataa.

What unsettled me about Black No More wasn’t just what I knew of Schuyler’s vaguely messed-up politics (which became a whole lot less vague and a whole lot more messed up in the decades following the novel’s publication). It was also that Schuyler was so merciless—about everyone. At the exact moment I was finding power and purpose in my black identity, he was telling me race didn’t exist…

Read the entire article here.

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Jean Toomer’s ‘Cane’ and the Ambiguity of Identity

Posted in Articles, Biography, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2019-01-04 20:14Z by Steven

Jean Toomer’s ‘Cane’ and the Ambiguity of Identity

NYR Daily
The New York Review of Books
2018-12-28

George Hutchinson, Newton C. Farr Professor of American Culture
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York


A drawing of a sugar cane field in South Carolina, by Edouard Riou, late nineteenth century
Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy/De Agostini Picture Library/Bridgeman Images

Jean Toomer’s Cane was greeted in 1923 by influential critics as the brilliant beginning of a literary career. Many stressed the “authenticity” of Toomer’s African Americans and the lyrical voice with which he conjured them into being. His treatment of black characters contrasted starkly with both the stereotypes of earlier work by (mostly) white authors and the then current limitations of African-American problem fiction. As Montgomery Gregory pointed out for the new black magazine Opportunity, Toomer had avoided “the pitfalls of propaganda and moralizing on the one hand and the snares of a false and hollow race pride on the other hand.” Waldo Frank wrote, in the foreword to the book, “It is a harbinger of the South’s literary maturity: of its emergence from the obsession put upon its mind by the unending racial crisis—an obsession from which writers have made their indirect escape through sentimentalism, exoticism, polemic, ‘problem’ fiction, and moral melodrama. It marks the dawn of direct and unafraid creation.”

The unusual features and effectiveness of Cane can be attributed to the fact that its author was in rapid transition, vocationally, geographically, socially, and intellectually, between different identities. His unsettled position derived from both a complicated personal history and the unusual cultural moment in which he emerged as an artist. Born just two years after his famous grandfather, P.B.S. Pinchback—a former governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction—had moved from a palatial home in New Orleans to a smaller, though fashionable, house in Washington, Toomer never really knew the father for whom he was originally named. His mother, Nina, gave birth to him just nine months after a wedding of which her father disapproved and then found herself abandoned when Nathan Pinchback Toomer (as Jean was first named) was only a year old. Nina moved back to her autocratic father’s home, on the condition that she change the boy’s surname to Pinchback and his first name to anything other than Nathan (her husband’s name). Eventually, the first name became Eugene, after a godfather; but friends called the boy “Pinchy.” His mother called him Eugene Toomer and his grandparents, Eugene Pinchback. Ambiguity of identity and a strong intuition of the arbitrary nature of social labels came early to Toomer…

Read the entire article here.

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On Optimism and Despair

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Europe, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations on 2016-12-22 02:28Z by Steven

On Optimism and Despair

The New York Review of Books
2016-12-22

Zadie Smith

A talk given in Berlin on November 10 on receiving the 2016 Welt Literature Prize.

First I would like to acknowledge the absurdity of my position. Accepting a literary prize is perhaps always a little absurd, but in times like these not only the recipient but also the giver feels some sheepishness about the enterprise. But here we are. President Trump rises in the west, a united Europe drops below the horizon on the other side of the ocean—but here we still are, giving a literary prize, receiving one. So many more important things were rendered absurd by the events of November 8 that I hesitate to include my own writing in the list, and only mention it now because the most frequent question I’m asked about my work these days seems to me to have some bearing on the situation at hand.

The question is: “In your earlier novels you sounded so optimistic, but now your books are tinged with despair. Is this fair to say?” It is a question usually posed in a tone of sly eagerness—you will recognize this tone if you’ve ever heard a child ask permission to do something she has in fact already done…

…I realize as I write this that I have strayed some way from the happiness that should rightly attend accepting a literary prize. I am very happy to accept this great honor—please don’t mistake me. I am more than happy—I am amazed. When I started to write I never imagined that anyone outside of my neighborhood would read these books, never mind outside of England, never mind “on the continent,” as my father liked to call it. I remember how stunned I was to embark on my very first European book tour, to Germany, with my father, who had last been here in 1945, as a young soldier in the reconstruction. It was a trip filled, for him, with nostalgia: he had loved a German girl, back in 1945, and one of his great regrets, he admitted to me on that trip, was not marrying her and instead coming home, to England, and marrying first one woman and then another, my mother.

We made a funny pair on that tour, I’m sure: a young black girl and her elderly white father, clutching our guidebooks and seeking those spots in Berlin that my father had visited almost fifty years earlier. It is from him that I have inherited both my optimism and my despair, for he had been among the liberators at Belsen and therefore seen the worst this world has to offer, but had, from there, gone forward, with a sufficiently open heart and mind, striding into one failed marriage and then another, marrying both times across various lines of class, color, and temperament, and yet still found in life reasons to be cheerful, reasons even for joy.

He was, I realize now, one of the least ideological people I ever met: everything that happened to him he took as a particular case, unable or unwilling to generalize from it. He lost his livelihood but did not lose faith in his country. The education system failed him but he still revered it and placed all his hopes for his children in it. His relations with women were mostly disastrous but he did not hate women. In his mind he did not marry a black girl, he married “Yvonne,” and he did not have an experimental set of mixed-race children, he had me and my brother Ben and my brother Luke.

How rare such people are! I am not so naive even now as to believe we have enough of them at any one time in history to form a decent and tolerant society. But neither will I ever deny their existence or the possibility of lives like his. He was a member of the white working class, a man often afflicted by despair who still managed to retain a core optimism. Perhaps in a different time under different cultural influences living in a different society he would have become one of the rabid old angry white men of whom the present left is so afeared. As it was, born in 1925 and dying in 2006, he saw his children benefit from the civilized postwar protections of free education and free health care, and felt he had many reasons to be grateful…

Read the entire talk here.

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Blacks & Jews Entangled

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Judaism, Media Archive, Religion, United States on 2016-06-24 00:35Z by Steven

Blacks & Jews Entangled

The New York Review of Books
2016-07-14

Darryl Pinckney

Oreo by Fran Ross, with a foreword by Danzy Senna and an afterword by Harryette Mullen, New Directions, 230 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Google wasn’t around when Oreo was first published in 1974. You are hit with Greek mythology and Yiddish right away and just the look of the pages of Fran Ross’s novel about an Afro-Jewish girl’s quest to find her white father can discourage or intimidate. Oreo, by an African-American writer who died in 1985, promises a degree of difficulty; the chapter titles, paragraph titles (“Helen and Oreo shmooz”), different font sizes, a graph showing shades of blackness, letters, an elaborate five-page menu of a daughter’s homecoming meal, footnotes, and mathematical equations say this is no naturalistic tale of two ghettoes. The protagonist is called “Oreo” not because of the cookie—i.e., because she is mixed-race or reluctantly black, as in black on the outside but white on the inside. Her black grandmother had been trying to give Oreo the nickname “Oriole,” but couldn’t make herself understood to the family.

In addition to Greek myth and Yiddish, Ross makes use of black slang, popular culture of the time, puns, raunch, her own made-up words—but this is not vernacular, not jive. Ross’s voice is literary, and thrilled with itself, joking about Villon or Bellow, totally into what it takes to get up to outrageous parody. Nothing about the narrative is restful; you have to stay on the alert. Oreo is quick, obscure, sly, and every line is working hard, doing its bit. Ross makes Oreo relentless in her shtick. “Oreo was soon engrossed in ‘Burp: The Course of Smiling Among Groups of Israeli Infants in the First Eighteen Months of Life,’ the cover story in Pitfalls of Gynecology.”

In fractured, short chapters, Oreo decides arbitrarily that she has fulfilled a given task and therefore deserves another cryptic clue from her father. Ross gives us not a send-up of Theseus’s journey of labors, but her appropriation of his battles as her structure, her frame for her provocative urban picaresque…

Read the review here.

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Forward Passes

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-12-20 02:55Z by Steven

Forward Passes

The New York Review of Books
2015-12-17

Darryl Pinckney

Loving Day by Mat Johnson; Spiegel and Grau, 287 pp., $26.00

The importing of human beings into the US from Africa to be sold as slaves was outlawed in 1808, after which the slave markets of the southern states traded in black people born in America. The rules of New World slavery decreed that a person’s status was derived from that of the mother, not the father. A slave owner’s children by an enslaved woman were, firstly, assets. Neither Frederick Douglass nor Booker T. Washington considered himself mixed-race, because of the one-drop rule that determined how much black blood made a person black. They loathed the thought of their slave-owning white fathers. Douglass never saw his mother’s face in the daylight, because she was always going to or coming back from the fields in the dark.

What outraged white southerners about Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not only that Harriet Beecher Stowe asserted that black people were better Christians than white people; she was also frank about the immorality of the white man’s relations with the black women in his power. But Stowe had as much trouble as Lincoln in imagining the social destiny of mixed-race people who were pink enough in fact to pass for white (a problem central to Mat Johnson’s brilliantly satirical new novel Loving Day)…

Read the entire review here.

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President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Interviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2015-11-27 01:16Z by Steven

President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa

The New York Review of Books
2015-11-05

President Barack Obama

Marilynne Robinson


President Obama and Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa State Library, Des Moines, September 2015 (Pete Souza/White House)

The following conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson was conducted in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 14. An audio recording of it can be heard at itunes.com/nybooks. —The Editors

The President: Marilynne, it’s wonderful to see you. And as I said as we were driving over here, this is an experiment, because typically when I come to a place like Des Moines, I immediately am rushed over to some political event and I make a speech, or I have a town hall, or I go see some factory and have wonderful conversations with people. But it’s very planned out and scripted. And typically, we’re trying to drive a very particular message that day about education or about manufacturing.

But one of the things that I don’t get a chance to do as often as I’d like is just to have a conversation with somebody who I enjoy and I’m interested in; to hear from them and have a conversation with them about some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction that the country should be going in.

And so we had this idea that why don’t I just have a conversation with somebody I really like and see how it turns out. And you were first in the queue, because—

Marilynne Robinson: Thank you very much.

The President: Well, as you know—I’ve told you this—I love your books. Some listeners may not have read your work before, which is good, because hopefully they’ll go out and buy your books after this conversation.

I first picked up Gilead, one of your most wonderful books, here in Iowa. Because I was campaigning at the time, and there’s a lot of downtime when you’re driving between towns and when you get home late from campaigning. And you and I, therefore, have an Iowa connection, because Gilead is actually set here in Iowa…

Robinson: And also, one of the things that doesn’t take into account is that local governments can be great systems of oppression. And it’s a wonderful thing to have a national government that can intervene in the name of national values.

The President: Well, that was the lesson of the entire movement to abolish slavery and the civil rights movement. And that’s one thing—I mean, I do think that one of the things we haven’t talked about that does become the fault line around which the “us” and “them” formula rears its head is the fault line of race. And even on something like schools that you just discussed, part of the challenge is that the school systems we have are wonderful, except for a handful of schools that are predominantly minority that are terrible.

Our systems for maintaining the peace and our criminal justice systems generally work, except for this huge swath of the population that is incarcerated at rates that are unprecedented in world history.

And when you are thinking about American democracy or, for that matter, Christianity in your writings, how much does that issue of “the other” come up and how do you think about that? I know at least in Gilead that factors into one major character, trying to figure out how he can love somebody in the Fifties that doesn’t look like him.

Robinson: Iowa never had laws against interracial marriage. Only Iowa and Maine never had [them]—

The President: Those were the only two.

Robinson: Yes. And [Ulysses S.] Grant really did call [Iowa] the shining star of radicalism, and so on. We never had segregated schools; they were illegal from before, while it was still a territory, and so on. And these laws never changed and they became the basis for the marriage equality ruling that the Supreme Court here [in Iowa] did.

So that whole stream of the culture never changed. And at the same time, the felt experience of the culture was not aligned with the liberal tradition [of the] culture. And so in that book, Jack has every right to think he can come to Iowa, and yet what he finds makes him frightened even to raise the question…

Read the entire conversation here. Read part 2 of the conversation here.

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Speaking in Tongues

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United Kingdom, United States on 2013-03-31 02:10Z by Steven

Speaking in Tongues

The New York Review of Books
Volume 56, Number 3 (2009-02-26)

Zadie Smith

The following is based on a lecture given at the New York Public Library in December 2008.

1.

Hello. This voice I speak with these days, this English voice with its rounded vowels and consonants in more or less the right place—this is not the voice of my childhood. I picked it up in college, along with the unabridged Clarissa and a taste for port. Maybe this fact is only what it seems to be—a case of bald social climbing—but at the time I genuinely thought this was the voice of lettered people, and that if I didn’t have the voice of lettered people I would never truly be lettered. A braver person, perhaps, would have stood firm, teaching her peers a useful lesson by example: not all lettered people need be of the same class, nor speak identically. I went the other way. Partly out of cowardice and a constitutional eagerness to please, but also because I didn’t quite see it as a straight swap, of this voice for that.

My own childhood had been the story of this and that combined, of the synthesis of disparate things. It never occurred to me that I was leaving the London district of Willesden for Cambridge. I thought I was adding Cambridge to Willesden, this new way of talking to that old way. Adding a new kind of knowledge to a different kind I already had. And for a while, that’s how it was: at home, during the holidays, I spoke with my old voice, and in the old voice seemed to feel and speak things that I couldn’t express in college, and vice versa. I felt a sort of wonder at the flexibility of the thing. Like being alive twice.

But flexibility is something that requires work if it is to be maintained. Recently my double voice has deserted me for a single one, reflecting the smaller world into which my work has led me. Willesden was a big, colorful, working-class sea; Cambridge was a smaller, posher pond, and almost univocal; the literary world is a puddle. This voice I picked up along the way is no longer an exotic garment I put on like a college gown whenever I choose—now it is my only voice, whether I want it or not. I regret it; I should have kept both voices alive in my mouth. They were both a part of me. But how the culture warns against it! As George Bernard Shaw delicately put it in his preface to the play Pygmalion, “many thousands of [British] men and women…have sloughed off their native dialects and acquired a new tongue.”…

…2…

…Until Obama, black politicians had always adhered to these unwritten rules. In this way, they defended themselves against those two bogeymen of black political life: the Uncle Tom and the House Nigger. The black politician who played up to, or even simply echoed, white fears, desires, and hopes for the black community was in danger of earning these epithets—even Martin Luther King was not free from such suspicions. Then came Obama, and the new world he had supposedly ushered in, the postracial world, in which what mattered most was not blind racial allegiance but factual truth. It was felt that Jesse Jackson was sadly out of step with this new postracial world: even his own son felt moved to publicly repudiate his “ugly rhetoric.” But Jackson’s anger was not incomprehensible nor his distrust unreasonable. Jackson lived through a bitter struggle, and bitter struggles deform their participants in subtle, complicated ways. The idea that one should speak one’s cultural allegiance first and the truth second (and that this is a sign of authenticity) is precisely such a deformation.

Right up to the wire, Obama made many black men and women of Jackson’s generation suspicious. How can the man who passes between culturally black and white voices with such flexibility, with such ease, be an honest man? How will the man from Dream City keep it real? Why won’t he speak with a clear and unified voice? These were genuine questions for people born in real cities at a time when those cities were implacably divided, when the black movement had to yell with a clear and unified voice, or risk not being heard at all. And then he won. Watching Jesse Jackson in tears in Grant Park, pressed up against the varicolored American public, it seemed like he, at least, had received the answer he needed: only a many-voiced man could have spoken to that many people.

A clear and unified voice. In that context, this business of being biracial, of being half black and half white, is awkward. In his memoir, Obama takes care to ridicule a certain black girl called Joyce—a composite figure from his college days who happens also to be part Italian and part French and part Native American and is inordinately fond of mentioning these facts, and who likes to say:

I’m not black…I’m multiracial…. Why should I have to choose between them?… It’s not white people who are making me choose…. No—it’s black people who always have to make everything racial. They’re the ones making me choose. They’re the ones who are telling me I can’t be who I am….

He has her voice down pat and so condemns her out of her own mouth. For she’s the third bogeyman of black life, the tragic mulatto, who secretly wishes she “passed,” always keen to let you know about her white heritage. It’s the fear of being mistaken for Joyce that has always ensured that I ignore the box marked “biracial” and tick the box marked “black” on any questionnaire I fill out, and call myself unequivocally a black writer and roll my eyes at anyone who insists that Obama is not the first black president but the first biracial one. But I also know in my heart that it’s an equivocation; I know that Obama has a double consciousness, is black and, at the same time, white, as I am, unless we are suggesting that one side of a person’s genetics and cultural heritage cancels out or trumps the other…

Read the entire article here.

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