Hilton Als has been a theater critic for The New Yorker since 2002, and maybe a theater critic learns to conceive of life offstage as a performance too, or maybe a man becomes a theater critic because this is how he sees the world. The Women, Als’s first book, published in 1996, is about one particular role—that of the long-suffering, self-sacrificing “Negress”—in the pageant of American life. It is a part played by Als’s mother, by Malcolm X’s mother and by the Warholite Dorothy Dean, but also by the poet Owen Dodson and by James Brown, whose “hair and clothes were as perfect as any Negress’s” that Als had ever seen. The striking assertion of The Women is that a man can be a Negress too, if he sees himself that way and, more important, if other people see him that way. Als’s baroque argument is undertaken in the service of autobiography—he is a Negress himself—and that emphasis is the secret of its appeal. The personal inflection gives an intensity of focus to what is otherwise an extremely discursive book.
Als’s new book, White Girls, is a collection of essays, and while it’s more various and less personal than The Women, it remains a meditation on identity-as-performance. Like The Women, White Girls illustrates a powerful and disturbing idea: the world tells us that we are black men, white women, whatever, and we dress up in costumes and play the part, but alone in our houses or besotted on the street corner, who are we really, and who are we kidding?
First, though: Who are the “white girls”? Inevitably, Truman Capote is one, though he is not so much a girl as a woman. Als argues that he was “the most famous woman author—not writer, an important distinction—of his generation.” Unlike Carson McCullers, for instance, who “remained steeped in regionalism,” Capote “went on to become a woman of the world.” Als is writing specifically about the author photo that appeared on the dust jacket of Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), which shows him stretched out on a couch, a kind of odalisque in a vest—a woman, Als says, who wanted “to be fucked by you and by any idea of femininity that had fucked you up.” It isn’t clear to me what this means, and there are long sections of White Girls that leave the earnest reader desperate for the clarity of The Women (in which Als says Capote looks like “a homely but spirited young girl waiting to be admired by someone like my father”), but no matter. The point is that Capote had a “drive to create a self that existed apart from the isolated, nowhere world of writing,” and in that spirit he made himself “an image accessible to publicity.” He played the part of the white girl, consciously, in order to sell books.
Als does not seem to care for Truman Capote as a writer, female or not, and dismisses Other Voices, Other Rooms as “an idea about femininity made palatable by Capote’s shal-low interpretation.” But Capote illustrates the central theme of White Girls: like “Negress,” these phrases—“white girl,” “woman author,” etc.—are rhetorical artifacts. They don’t describe a set of characteristics associated with skin tone or gender; they refer instead to a set of characteristics that have a perceived (and only a perceived) correlation with skin tone or gender. They refer to a way of looking and, most important, to a way of being looked at.
We all have a part to play. To some extent, we can choose those parts—“white girl” is a role anyone might try to play, though it’s not a role that everyone can play equally well—and to some extent, those parts are chosen for us. If The Women is largely an exploration of this idea as it applies to private life, White Girls extends the argument to include celebrities—people who do not play a generic cultural role but are instead required to perform some version of their individuality. They are the stars in public life, while the rest of us knock around in central casting.
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In “Philosopher or Dog?”, Als writes ostensibly about Malcolm X and his mother (some of its language is borrowed from The Women), but it’s about many other things as well: black writers, black writing (phrases Als studiously avoids), Als’s own writing, Als’s own mother, mothers in general, writing in general. It is a wild, formless, angry, seductive essay, the most aggravating piece in the book, and maybe the best as well.
Als despises The Autobiography of Mal-colm X and also, it must be said, sidesteps the question of the book’s authorship—it was produced in collaboration with Alex Haley—in order to emphasize his doubt that it even counts as writing. He also despises “the living ghosts who read this book and love it, not knowing why.” Most of all, he objects to the portrayal of Louise Little, Malcolm X’s mother, which he takes to be representative of the Autobiography’s larger intellectual failure. “My mother,” writes Malcolm X, or Alex Haley, or both, “who was born in Grenada, in the British West Indies, looked like a white woman. Her father was white…. Her accent did not sound like a Negro’s.” Sentences like these, says Als, “provoke nonthought in the mind of very stupid people.” A blunt and arresting claim. Not only does the Autobiography grossly oversimplify a complex historical reality—later Als does address the “fantasy of Grandfather,” Louise’s white father, whom Malcolm X dismisses as a “white rapist,” never asking whether Louise’s parents might have loved one another—but, worse, it turns Louise Little into “the symbol of her son’s career-to-be.” It was a career spent (if I understand this oblique passage correctly) in “reverence of people not of a color,” which is to say white people.
In Als’s analysis, the Autobiography is a performance, and one delivered for the benefit and with the complicity of those people “not of a color” who “applauded and supported [Malcolm X’s] ‘rage’ because it reinforced their privilege.” That makes it an intellectually dishonest performance, and one undertaken, like Capote’s transformation into a woman author, for the benefit of his career. “The Autobiography has everything very stupid people embrace,” Als writes: “the mother driven mad by her husband’s murder, the dust of patriarchy, religious conversion into the sublime—and yet it has nothing.” Malcolm X, Als seems to say, could not authentically play the part of himself. He could not inhabit his own complexity. Instead, he was content to play the part of the disenfranchised black man, a role that was congenial to white America because it was so intimately familiar as to provoke only “nonthought.” He performed disenfranchisement as a political problem without exploring what it meant on a personal level. In other words, he did not concede that his grandparents might have loved each other; he did not wonder what the experience of that love might have been like. It might also be said that as long as he called himself Malcolm X, he had not really cast off the name Little at all. X is a non-name. It is explicitly not Little, but it’s not anything else either. It is, once again, an oversimplification, part of the caricatured performance. He might as well have called himself Malcolm Fuck You.