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Nothing succeeds like failure.
In the past two decades, Richard Rodriguez has offered us a gamut of
anecdotes, mostly about himself in action in an environment that is not
always attuned to his own inner life. These anecdotes have taken the
form of a trilogy that started in 1983 with the classic Hunger of
Memory, continued in 1993 with Days of Obligation and concludes now with his new book Brown:
The Last Discovery of America. This isn't a trilogy about history.
It isn't about sociology or politics either, at least in their most
primary senses. Instead, it is a sustained meditation on Latino life in
the United States, filled with labyrinthine reflections on philosophy
Rodriguez embraces subjectivity wholeheartedly. His tool, his
astonishing device, is the essay, and his model, I believe, is
Montaigne, the father of the personal essay and a genius at taking even
an insect tempted by a candle flame as an excuse to meditate on the
meaning of life, death and everything in between. Not that Montaigne is
Rodriguez's only touchstone. In Brown he chants to Alexis de
Tocqueville and James Baldwin as well. And in the previous installments
of his trilogy, particularly owing to his subject matter, he has emerged
as something of a successor to Octavio Paz.
The other trunk of this genealogical tree I'm shaping is V.S. Naipaul,
or at least he appears that to me, a counterpoint, as I reread
Rodriguez's oeuvre. They have much in common: They explore a
culture through its nuances and not, as it were, through its
high-profile iconography; they are meticulous littérateurs,
intelligent, incessantly curious; and, more important, everywhere they
go they retain, to their honor, the position of the outsider looking in.
Rodriguez, in particular, has been a Mexican-American but not a
Chicano--that is, he has rejected the invitation to be a full part of
the community that shaped him. Instead, he uses himself as a looking
glass to reflect, from the outside, on who Mexicans are, in and beyond
politics. This, predictably, has helped fill large reservoirs of
animosity against him. I don't know of any other Latino author who
generates so much anger. Chicanos love to hate him as much as they hate
to love him.
Why this is so isn't difficult to understand: He is customarily critical
of programs and policies that are seen as benefactors to the community,
for example, bilingual education and affirmative action, which, in his
eyes, have only balkanized families, neighborhoods and cities. In
Hunger of Memory he portrayed himself as a Scholarship Boy who
benefited from racial profiling. He reached a succinct conclusion: Not
race but individual talent should be considered in a person's
application for school or work--not one's skin color, last name or
country of origin, only aptitude. Naipaul too can play the devil: His
journeys through India and the Arab world, even through the lands of El
Dorado, are unsettling when one considers his rabid opinions on the
"uncivilized" natives. But Naipaul delivers these opinions with
admirable grace and, through that, makes his readers rethink the
colonial galaxy, revisit old ideas. In that sense, Naipaul and Rodriguez
are authors who force upon us the necessity to sharpen our own ideas. We
read them, we agree and disagree with them, so as to fine-tune our own
conception of who we are. They are of the kind of writer who first
infuriates, then unsettles us. What they never do is leave the reader
unchanged. For that alone, one ought to be grateful.
Apparently, the trilogy came into being after Rodriguez's agent, as the
author himself puts it in "Hispanic," the fifth chapter of Brown,
"encouraged from me a book that answers a simple question: What do
Hispanics mean to the life of America? He asked me that question several
years ago in a French restaurant on East Fifty-seventh Street, as I
watched a waiter approach our table holding before him a shimmering
The image of îles flottantes is a fitting one, I believe,
since the Latino mosaic on this side of the border (Rodriguez often
prefers to use the term "Hispanic" in his pages) might be seen as
nothing if not an archipelago of self-sufficient subcultures: Cuban,
Puerto Rican, Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Dominican... and the
whole Bolivarian range of possibilities. Are these islands of identity
interconnected? How do they relate to one another? To what extent are a
Brazilian in Tallahassee and a Mexicano in Portland, Oregon, kindred
Judging by his answer, Rodriguez might have been asked the wrong
question. Or else, he might have chosen to respond impractically. For
the question that runs through the three installments is, How did
Hispanics become brown? His belief is that brown, as a color, is the
sine qua non of Latinos, and he exercises it as a metaphor of mixture.
"Brown as impurity," he reasons. "I write of a color that is not a
singular color, not a strict recipe, not an expected result, but a color
produced by careless desire, even by accident." It is the color of
mestizaje, i.e., the miscegenation that shaped the Americas from
1492 onward, as they were forced, in spite of themselves, into modern
times. It is the juxtaposition of white European and dark aboriginal, of
Hernán Cortés and his mistress and translator, La
Malinche. And it is also the so-called raza cósmica that
Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos talked about in the early
twentieth century, a master race that, capitalizing on its own impurity,
would rise to conquer the hemisphere, if not the entire globe.
But have Hispanics really become brown on the Technicolor screen of
America? Rodriguez is mistaken, I'm afraid. The gestation of race in the
Caribbean, from Venezuela to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, has a
different tint, since African slaves were brought in to replace Indians
for the hard labor in mines and fields, and their arrival gave birth to
other racial mixtures, among them those termed "mulattoes" and "zambos."
Argentina, on the other hand, had a minuscule aboriginal population when
the Spanish viceroys and missionaries arrived. The gauchos, a sort of
cowboy, are at the core of its national mythology, as can be seen in the
works of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, José Hernández and
Jorge Luis Borges. "Brown," in Rodriguez's conception, might be the
color of Mexicans in East LA, but surely not of Cubans in Miami. Some
Latinos might have become brown, but not all. And then again, what does
"brown" really mean? Rodriguez embraces it as a metaphor of impurity.
Mestizos are crossbreeds, they are impure, and impurity is beautiful.
But the term "brown" has specific political connotations as well. It is,
to a large extent, a byproduct of the civil rights era, the era of
César Chávez and the Young Lords, coined in reaction to
the black-and-white polarity that played out in Washington policy
corridors and the media: Brown is between white and black, a third
option in the kaleidoscope of race. A preferred term in the Southwest
was La Raza, but "brown" also found its way into manifestoes, political
speeches, legal documents and newspaper reports.
Rodriguez isn't into the Chicano movement, though. My gut instinct is
that he feels little empathy toward the 1960s in general, let alone
toward the Mexican-American upheaval. His views on la
hispanicidad in America are defined by his Mexican ancestry and by
his residence in San Francisco, where he has made his home for years. He
is disconnected from the Caribbean component of Latinos, and, from the
reaction I see in readers on the East Coast, the Caribbean Latinos are
also uninvolved with him.
Furthermore, Rodriguez limits himself to the concept of miscegenation,
but only at the racial level. What about promiscuity in language, for
example? Promiscuity might be a strong word, but it surely carries the
right message. Rodriguez's English is still the Queen's English:
overpolished, uncorrupted, stainless. How is it that he embraces
mestizaje but has little to say about Spanglish, that
disgustingly gorgeous mix of Spanish and English that is neither one nor
the other? Isn't that in-betweenness what America is about today? On the
issue of language, I have a side comment: I find it appalling that
Rodriguez's volumes are not available in Spanish to Mexicans and other
Latinos. Years ago, a small Iberian press, Megazul, released Hambre
de memoria in a stilted, unapologetically Castilian translation.
That, clearly, was the wrong chord to touch, when the author's resonance
is closer to San Antonio than to San Sebastián. How much longer
need Mexicans wait to read the work en español mexicano of
a canonical figure, whose lifelong quest has been to understand Mexicans
beyond the pale? The question brings us back to Paz and his "The Pachuco
and Other Extremes," the first chapter in his masterpiece The
Labyrinth of Solitude, released in 1950. It has angered Chicanos for
decades, and with good reason: This is an essay that distorts Mexican
life north of the border. Paz approached the pachuco--a social type of
Mexican youth in Los Angeles in the 1940s who fashioned a specific
lingo, and idiosyncrasies that Elvis Presley appropriated obliquely--as
a deterioration of the Mexican psyche. In his work, Rodriguez has
established a sort of colloquy with Paz, though not a direct address. He
embraces Paz's cosmopolitanism, his openness, and perceives him as a
Europeanized intellectual invaluable in the quest to freshen up Mexican
elite culture. But he refuses to confront Paz's anti-Chicanismo, and in
general Paz's negative views on Latinos in the United States. Once, for
instance, when asked what he thought about Spanglish, Paz responded that
it was neither good nor bad, "it is simply an aberration." In any case,
reading both authors on US-Mexican relations is an unpredictable,
enlightening catechism, filled with detours. While Mexicans might not
like to hear what Rodriguez has to say about them and about himself (he
has talked of "hating Mexico"), at least they will be acquainted with
All this is to say that Rodriguez's response to "What do Hispanics mean
to the life of America?" is partial at best. The trilogy shows a mind
engaged, but its subject is almost unmovable. Hunger of Memory
was an autobiographical meditation set in the United States as the
country was about to enter the Reagan era. It denounced a stagnant
society, interested in the politics of compassion more than in the
politics of equality, a society with little patience for Mexicans.
Days of Obligation was also about los Estados Unidos as
the first Bush presidency was approaching its end. By then the Reagan
mirage was officially over. We were about to enter another house of
mirrors under the tutelage of Bill Clinton. And this third installment
of the trilogy arrives in bookstores at a time when the melting pot,
la sopa de culturas, is boiling again, with xenophobia against
Arabs at a height, and Latinos, already the largest minority according
to the latest US Census data--35.3 million strong by late 2000, if one
counts only those officially registered--are still on the fringes,
fragmented, compartmentalized, more a sum of parts than a whole.
These changes are visible only through inference in the trilogy;
Rodriguez seldom makes use of political facts. He lives in a dreamlike
zone, a universe of ideas and sensations and paradox. Somewhere in
Brown he announces:
A few weeks ago, in the newspaper (another day in the multicultural
nation), a small item: Riot in a Southern California high school.
Hispanic students protest, then smash windows, because African-American
students get four weeks for Black History month, whereas Hispanics get
one. The more interesting protest would be for Hispanic students to
demand to be included in Black History month. The more interesting
remedy would be for Hispanic History week to include African history.
This sums up Rodriguez's approach: a micromanagement of identity
delivered periodically from the same viewpoint. Or has the viewpoint
changed? It is possible to see a growing maturity by reading the trilogy
chronologically. He started as an antisegregationist, a man interested
in assimilation of Mexicans into the larger landscape of America. His
feelings toward Mexico and toward his homosexuality were tortured at the
time. These became clear, or at least clearer, in the second
installment, in which a picture of a San Francisco desolated by AIDS and
an argument with the author's own mexicanidad as personified by
his father, among other changes, were evident. Assimilation was still a
priority, but by the 1990s Rodriguez had ceased to be interested in such
issues and was more attracted to his own condition as a public gay
Brown is again about assimilation, but from a perspective that
asserts America is a country shaped by so many interbred layers of
ethnicity that nothing is pure anymore. At one point, he describes the
conversation of a couple of girls one afternoon on Fillmore Street. He
renders them and their dialogue thus: "Two girls. Perhaps sixteen.
White. Anglo, whatever. Tottering on their silly shoes. Talking of boys.
The one girl saying to the other: ...His complexion is so cool, this
sort of light--well, not that light." And Rodriguez ends: "I realized my
book will never be equal to the play of the young." This need to capture
what surrounds him is always evident, although it isn't always
successful, because he is an intellectual obsessed with his own stream
of consciousness rather than in catching the pulse of the nation. But
I've managed to explain the continuity of themes in Rodriguez's three
volumes only tangentially.
There is another take, summed up in three catchwords: class, ethnicity
and race. He appears to encourage this reading. The first installment is
about a low-income family whose child moves up in the hierarchy; the
second about the awakening to across-the-border roots; and the third
about "a tragic noun, a synonym for conflict and isolation," race. But
Rodriguez is quick to add:
race is not such a terrible word for me. Maybe because I am skeptical by
nature. Maybe because my nature is already mixed. The word race
encourages me to remember the influence of eroticism on history. For
that is what race memorializes. Within any discussion of race, there
lurks the possibility of romance.
So is this what the trilogy is about, finally? The endeavor strikes me
as rather mercurial. Because Rodriguez works extensively through
metaphor and hyperbole, future generations will read into his books what
they please, depending on the context. I still like Hunger of
Memory the best. Days of Obligation strikes me as a
collection of disparate essays without a true core. And Brown is
a book that is not fully embracing, not least because it refuses to
recognize the complexity of Latinos in the United States. In it
Rodriguez describes his namesake, Richard Nixon, as "the dark father of
Hispanicity." "Surviving Chicanos (one still meets them) scorn the term
Hispanic," Rodriguez argues, "in part because it was Richard Nixon who
drafted the noun and who made the adjective uniform." A similar
reference was invoked in an Op-Ed piece by him in the New York
Times, in which he declared George W. Bush the first Hispanic
President of the United States, the way Bill Clinton was the first black
President. Is this true? The argument developed is not always clear-cut:
It twists and turns, as we have by now come to expect. I've learned to
respect and admire Rodriguez. When I was a newly arrived immigrant in
New York City, I stumbled upon an essay of his and then read his first
book. I was mesmerized by the prose but found myself in strong
disagreement with its tenets, and we have corresponded about that in the
At any rate, where will Rodriguez go from here, now that the trilogy is
finished? Might he finally take a long journey overseas? Is his vision
of America finally complete? Not quite, I say, for the country is
changing rapidly. Mestizaje, he argues, is no longer the domain
of Latinos alone. We are all brown: dirty and impure. "This is not the
same as saying 'the poor shall inherit the earth' but is possibly
related," Rodriguez states. "The poor shall overrun the earth. Or the
brown shall." This is a statement for the history books. In his view,
America is about to become América--everyone in it a Hispanic, if
not physically, at least metaphorically. "American history books I read
as a boy were all about winning and losing," Rodriguez states in
"Peter's Avocado," the last of the nine essays in Brown. And with
a typical twist, continues, "One side won; the other side lost.... [But]
the stories that interested me were stories that seemed to lead off the
page: A South Carolina farmer married one of his slaves. The farmer
died. The ex-slave inherited her husband's chairs, horses, rugs, slaves.
And then what happened? Did it, in fact, happen?"
Ward Connerly, figurehead for California's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, is up to more mischief. This time
it's a push to prevent California's public agencies from classifying
"any individual by race, ethnicity, color or national origin in the
operation of public education, public contracting or public employment."
Classification is defined as any "act of separating, sorting or
organizing by race, ethnicity, color or national origin including, but
not limited to, inquiring, profiling, or collecting such data on
Shrewdly titled the Racial Privacy Initiative, it sounds like a plan to
protect us from the manipulative purview of Big Brother, or perhaps an
act to prohibit police profiling or to protect medical records from
being misused or to prevent consumer credit and employment histories
from being revealed in ways that discriminate against minorities.
"Racial privacy" beguiles with the promise of removing race and all its
contentiousness from public view, keeping its secrets in a vault for
only the rightful owner to know. A kind of "don't ask, don't tell"
stance of racial revelation.
In fact, the proposed enactment contains a series of crucial exceptions
that quickly turn such rosily "color-blind" expectations completely
upside down. First, in a blatant concession to Big Brother writ large,
there is an exemption for police. Sociologists Troy Duster and Andy
Barlow have worried that this exemption will allow police alone to
collect racial data: "What about the concern of many citizens that
police practices need to be monitored for racial profiling? The racial
privacy initiative would not allow such data to be kept."
Similarly, while permitting racial and ethnic classification of "medical
research subjects and patients," the initiative bars the collection of
data for population-based surveys that are the cornerstone of public
health administration. And while there is a superficially charitable
exemption for the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, that much
of a given is rather severely constrained in that the department "shall
not impute a race, color, ethnicity or national origin to any
individual." In any event, this particular exemption "shall expire ten
years after the effective date of this measure."
In fact, the Racial Privacy Initiative is not about protecting data from
being misused; instead it effectively eliminates data collection at all.
If enacted, it would continue a trend begun by Ronald Reagan and pursued
by every Republican administration since: limiting the accountability of
public institutions by making vital public information unavailable. In
such a world, there can be no easy way to know whether Native American
women are being sterilized at higher rates in public hospitals than
other groups. One would not be able to determine whether public schools
were tracking black students into remedial classes and white students
into advanced placement. Documentation of ghettoization and other
patterns of residential segregation would be magically wiped from census
With no impartial public archive of such data, the burden of compiling
such statistics would fall either upon independent academics who would
have to find funding for their studies on a project-by-project basis; or
upon a cacophony of competing interest groups--a competition that no
doubt will be more than skewed by better-funded conservative think tanks
like the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.
Indeed, this initiative is not about "privacy" as most laypeople think
of it. It is actually about privatizing racially based behavior. And
privatized racism has been a dream of the far right since the first
whites-only private schools sprang up in the wake of Brown v. Board
of Education. Segregation is "private choice," a "social" problem,
not a legal one, according to this logic. You can't force people to love
you. Suing over discrimination is victimology. As long as the government
doesn't force you to drink out of a separate water fountain or go to a
separate school, then that is the limit of equal opportunity.
Eliminating official knowledge of race and ethnicity in the public
sphere at first sounds like part of the same enterprise as eliminating
Jim Crow laws. (Indeed, many California voters seem as confused about
the meaning of the initiative as they were about Prop 209, which sounded
to many as though it would lead to more inclusion rather than less.) In
fact, however, "racial privacy" accomplishes little more than
institutionalizing an official stance of denial and, in the process,
eviscerates essential civil rights enforcement mechanisms. Californians
may as well put those three little moral idiots, Hear-no-evil,
See-no-evil and Speak-no-evil, in charge of remediation for
In what has been one of the most effective manuevers of the right in
recent years, defenders of the initiative have co-opted a good deal of
the vocabulary of the civil rights community in a blizzard of
definitional inversions. Ward Connerly insists that this measure will
keep the state from "profiling" its citizens. If one accepts that to
most Americans "profiling" connotes the unethical use of data to
discriminate (as in Driving While Black), this conflation with the
neutral act of data collection itself is tremendously misleading. By the
same token, the name of Connerly's group, the American Civil Rights
Coalition, would seem to imply a greater measure of protection for civil
rights rather than lesser. I do worry that such studied reversals of
terms will come to overtake the discourse as much as the term "quota"
has displaced any public understanding of the actual meaning of
The publicly collected statistics we take for granted today show
undisputed racial and ethnic disparities in every realm of American
life. Any proposition that this gap is either not worth documenting--or,
even more insidiously, is aggravated by the gathering of such
knowledge--consigns us to a world in which "intelligence" is the
exclusive preserve of unrestrained police surveillance. The collective
ignorance with which we will be left will quite literally keep us from
ever speaking truth to power.
Although Chicano identity has been Luis Valdez's theme since all but the
earliest years of El Teatro Campesino, the guerrilla theater he founded
in the 1960s, getting a clear sense of his roots became doubly important
to him when his parents died in the mid-1990s. Valdez, the first Latino
playwright/director to reach Broadway and the creator of the bellwether Hispanic film Zoot Suit, had always been told his people were Yaquis from Sonora in northern Mexico, but he realized he knew very little about how they had
come to be California Chicanos.
So, in the late 1990s, he began to search his family's history and its
secrets, and what he discovered about the myths and contradictory
stories that had been handed down and about the little-known history of
the Yaqui wars in Mexico led him to write Mummified Deer, in some
ways his most personal play and his first new work for the theater in a
decade and a half (just ending its run at El Teatro Campesino in San
Juan Bautista). It's a play that uses the mythic, presentational
elements we've come to associate with Valdez's work, here present in a
Yaqui deer dancer, who together with the long arm of history defines
identity for the play.
Valdez founded El Teatro Campesino as an organizing and fundraising arm
of the United Farm Workers during the 1965 grape strike in Delano, where
he was born. The actors then were strikers who played type characters in
actos, short satirical sketches on strike issues performed at
work sites and in union halls.
But since splitting off from the union in 1967, the company has made
Chicano racial identity its focus. In the late 1960s and early '70s,
that specifically meant spiritual identity, with the theater reaching
all the way back to La Raza's Aztec and Mayan roots and making ritual
and myth, music and dance integral parts of its style.
Valdez was criticized at the time for abandoning the theater's
materialist viewpoint, and was criticized later in the decade and in the
1980s--when the entertainment industry began to understand the potential
of the Hispanic market--for his unabashed attempt to move into
commercial theater and filmmaking with Zoot Suit. Valdez's
response was that it was time for Chicanos to assume their place in the
mainstream and that separatism had been just a necessary phase that
prepared them to do so without losing their sense of identity. But it
was also clear that the young men in Zoot Suit had to reject that
aspect of pachuquismo, that very attractive, very essential part
of their identity as Chicanos, that was disruptive of society and
Lack of commitment to cultural authenticity seemed confirmed--certainly
to Latino actors who protested--in 1992 when Valdez attempted to cast
Laura San Giacomo, an actress with something of a bankable name but also
an Italian ancestry, as Frida Kahlo in the movie he was trying to make
about the artist. Valdez argued that the compromise was necessary to get
Hollywood to do movies with Hispanic protagonists at all and that the
movie would offer a picture of Latino life that was not gang- or
drug-based, i.e., nonstereotypical and presumably positive.
Maybe it's just the difficulty of a Chicano writer/director making
headway in the commercial world, but in truth, it's difficult seeing
Valdez as lost leader, as someone who's abandoned his roots, in San Juan
Bautista, the mission town where Mummified Deer has been playing
in a theater Valdez built out of a fruit-packing shed. By no means as
far off the beaten track as Glover, Vermont, where Bread and Puppet
escaped city life in the 1970s, it's still a small rural town a long way
from entertainment capitals and city attitudes.
The style of Valdez's new play also points to continuity. And for the
most part the inspired stylistic innovations that radical theaters
excelled in--in Mummified Deer for instance, a hospital bed
that's transformed into a train laden with Mexican
revolutionaries--still work their magic in Valdez's hands. The sudden
release of concentrated imagination thrills. But even when they don't
work, when they now seem more a part of tradition than vital and
expressive, their mere presence, like the continued earnest tone of his
writing in our smug, cynical time, suggests that Valdez hasn't
jettisoned the past.
In any event, the story itself makes it clear that roots are not easily
cut off. On a simple series of platforms, marked with what seem to be
petroglyphs and hung with plastic sheets that make the set look like an
ice cave--poor theater after all these years!--Mama Chu, a fierce,
84-year-old family matriarch, lies on a hospital bed, suffering from
abdominal pains. When the cause of her condition is diagnosed not as
cancer but as a mummified fetus that has been lodged in her womb for
sixty years, her granddaughter Armida, an anthro grad student at
Berkeley who's in search of the truth about her mother's life, begins to
pierce the maze of myths and half-truths that have made up Chu's story
and the family's history.
Along the way, secrets are revealed about paternity, incest and
migration. The ultimate source of these secrets and family myths isn't,
however, as in many plays, personal pathology. The half-truths and
inventions all proceed from a historic cause: the little-known Yaqui
genocide at the hands of Porfirio Diaz and the Federales, which capped
four centuries of little-known Yaqui resistance to European
In the end, it turns out that none of Chu's children as they're
presented in the play are hers. Her children were all taken away
and murdered in the genocide. She gathered Armida's mother, aunt and
uncle to her to fill the void. (The horrific description of the mass
slaughter alone insures that this play is not going very far into the
Powerful, serious material. And Valdez doesn't always treat it
reverentially, as many lesser playwrights would. The introduction of a
kind of grotesque humor makes it all the more powerful at times. As when
Aunt Oralia (Rosa Escalante) wonders, "Can't you just yank that little
sucka [the dead fetus] out?" or Uncle Profe explains the incest by
saying simply, "We were always very close."
To his credit, Valdez doesn't treat the Chicano family reverentially,
either. He understands that they can be quite conservative even though
they've been victims (or because they've been victims). He satirizes
them and creates a number of characters that, like the satirical figures
of the actos, are one-dimensional types. With an Oralia, that
works to project a sense of how self-protective she is about the past,
but this is ultimately a play of terrible family secrets, and having the
weight of those secrets fall on an Armida who is little more than a plot
mechanism and Berkeley-activist-type blunts the force of the drama.
It's not simply a matter of an uneven cast, one that ranges all the way
from the very adept and realistic Daniel Valdez (Uncle Profe) to
Estrella Esparza (Armida), who can barely make the words her own. It's
also the writing and the way Valdez as director has the characters
played. As director, he also pitches a number of the performances very
high. An actress like Alma Martinez, who plays Mama Chu, can obviously
change gears on a dime and sketch in a reaction or attitude with the
flick of a hand, but Valdez pushed her performance hard and makes it
vocally very forceful, as if constantly to remind us what a powerful
woman this is. The result is a lack of nuance, variety and sympathy that
sent me fleeing to quieter characters like Uncle Profe and Armida's
mother, Agustina (Anita Reyes).
Then too, the revelations about the past are far too complicated,
there's too much information coming at you generally, and what exactly
the deer dancer represents is obscure. Also, the symbol of the mummified
fetus at times feels contrived. All of which makes it difficult to take
in and feel comfortable with what Valdez is apparently going for in his
continuing exploration of what he understands to be a continually
evolving Chicano identity. That is, the sense that Chu's finally
confronting the Yaqui genocide results in her forgoing an operation and
keeping the fetus, which is an incarnation of both an indio past that is
dead and gone and a living Yaqui spirit that--bypassing the acquiescent
and self-deluding generation of aunt and uncle--Chu passes on to her
Right in the wake of House majority leader Dick Armey's explicit call
for several million Palestinians to be booted out of the West Bank, and
East Jerusalem and Gaza as well, came yet one more of those earnest
articles accusing a vague entity called "the left" of anti-Semitism.
This one was in Salon, by a man called Dennis Fox, identified as
an associate professor of legal studies and psychology at the University
of Illinois. Leaving nothing to chance, Salon titled Fox's
contribution "The shame of the pro-Palestinian left: Ignorance and
anti-Semitism are undercutting the moral legitimacy of Israel's
Over the past twenty years I've learned there's a quick way of figuring
just how badly Israel is behaving. There's a brisk uptick in the number
of articles accusing "the left" of anti-Semitism. These articles adopt
varying strategies. Particularly intricate, though I think
well-intentioned, was a recent column by Naomi Klein, who wrote that "it
is precisely because anti-Semitism is used by the likes of Mr. Sharon
that the fight against it must be reclaimed." Is Klein saying the global
justice movement has forgotten how to be anti-anti-Semitic? I don't
think it has. Are all denunciations of the government of Israel to be
prefaced by strident assertions of pro-Semitism?
If this is the case, can we not ask that those concerned about the
supposed silence of the left about anti-Semitism demonstrate their own
good faith by denouncing Israel's behavior toward Palestinians? Klein
did, but most don't. In a recent column in the New York Times
Frank Rich managed to write an entire column purportedly about Jewish
overreaction here to news reporting from Israel without even fleeting
reference to the fact that there might be some factual basis to reports
presenting Israel and its leaders in a bad light, even though he found
time for abuse of the "inexcusable" Arafat. Isn't Sharon "inexcusable"
in Rich's book?
So the left gets the rotten eggs, and those tossing the eggs mostly
don't feel it necessary to concede that Israel is a racist state whose
obvious and provable intent is to continue to steal Palestinian land,
oppress Palestinians, herd them into smaller and smaller enclaves, and
in all likelihood ultimately drive them into the sea or Lebanon or
Jordan or Dearborn or the space in Dallas-Fort Worth airport between the
third and fourth runways (the bold Armey plan).
Here's how Fox begins his article for Salon: "'Let's move back,'
my wife insisted when she saw the nearby banner: 'Israel Is a Terrorist
State!' We were at the April 20 Boston march opposing Israel's incursion
into the West Bank. So drop back we did, dragging our friends with us to
wait for an empty space we could put between us and the anti-Israel
sign." Inference by Fox: The banner is grotesque, presumptively
anti-Semitic. But there are plenty of sound arguments that from the
Palestinian point of view Israel is indeed a terrorist state, and
anyway, even if it wasn't, the description would not per se be evidence
of anti-Semitism. Only if the banner had read "All Jews Are Terrorists"
would Fox have a point.
Of course, the rhetorical trick is to conflate "Israel" or "the State of
Israel" with "Jews" and argue that they are synonymous. Ergo, to
criticize Israel is to be anti-Semitic. Leave aside the fact that many
of Israel's most articulate critics are Jews, honorably committed to the
cause of justice for all in the Middle East. Many Jews just don't like
hearing bad things said about Israel, same way they don't like reading
articles about the Jewish lobby here. Mention the lobby and someone like
Fox will rush into print denouncing those who "toy with the old
anti-Semitic canard that the Jews control the press." These days you
can't even say that the New York Times is owned by a Jewish
family without risking charges that you stand in Goebbels's shoes. I
even got accused of anti-Semitism the other day for mentioning that the
Jews founded Hollywood, which they most certainly did, as recounted in a
funny and informative book published in 1988, An Empire of Their Own:
How the Jews Invented Hollywood, by Neal Gabler.
So cowed are commentators (which is of course the prime motive of those
charges of anti-Semitism) that even after Congress recently voted
full-throated endorsement of Sharon and Israel, with only two senators
and twenty-one reps voting against (I don't count the chickenshit
twenty-nine who voted "present"), you could scarcely find a mainstream
paper prepared to analyze this astounding demonstration of the power of
AIPAC and other Jewish organizations, plus the Christian right and the
military industry, which profits enormously from military aid to Israel,
since Congress has stipulated that 75 percent of such supplies must be
bought from US firms like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.
The encouraging fact is that despite the efforts of the Southern Poverty
Law Center to drum up funds by hollering that the Nazis are about to
march down Main Street, there's remarkably little anti-Semitism in the
United States, and almost none that I've ever been able to detect on the
American left, which is of course amply stocked with non-self-hating
Jews. It's comical to find the left's assailants trudging all the way
back to LeRoi Jones and the 1960s to dig up the necessary anti-Semitic
gibes. The less encouraging fact is that there's not nearly enough
criticism of Israel's ghastly conduct toward Palestinians, which in its
present phase is testing the waters for reaction here to a major ethnic
cleansing of Palestinians, just as Armey called for.
So why don't people like Fox write about Armey's appalling remarks
(which the White House declared he hadn't made) instead of trying to
change the subject with nonsense about anti-Semitism? It's not
anti-Semitic to denounce ethnic cleansing, a strategy that, according to
recent polls, almost half of Israelis now heartily endorse. In this
instance the left really has nothing to apologize for, but those who
accuse it of anti-Semitism certainly do. They're apologists for policies
put into practice by racists, ethnic cleansers and, in Sharon's case, an
unquestioned war criminal who should be in the dock for his conduct.
Fear still haunts the Arab and Muslim communities of Southern
A friend and I were sitting around commiserating about the things that get to us: unloading small indignities, comparing thorns. "So there I was," she said, "sitting on the bus and this man across the aisle starts waving a copy of law professor Randall Kennedy's new book Nigger. He's got this mean-looking face with little raisiny eyes, and a pointy head, and he's taking this book in and out of his backpack. He's not reading it, mind you. He's just flashing it at black people."
"Don't be so touchy," I responded. "Professor Kennedy says that the N-word is just another word for 'pal' these days. So your guy was probably one of those muted souls you hear about on Fox cable, one of the ones who's been totally silenced by too much political correctness. I'd assume he was just trying to sign 'Have a nice day.'"
"Maybe so," she said, digging through her purse and pulling out a copy of Michael Moore's bestselling Stupid White Men. "But if I see him again, I'm armed with a 'nice day' of my own."
"That's not nice," I tell her. "Besides, I've decided to get in on the publishing boom myself. My next book will be called Penis. I had been going to title it Civil Claims That Shaped the Evidentiary History of Primogeniture: Paternity and Inheritance Rights in Anglo-American Jurisprudence, 1883-1956, but somehow Penis seems so much more concise. We lawyers love concision."
She raised one eyebrow. "And the mere fact that hordes of sweaty-palmed adolescents might line up to sneak home a copy, or that Howard Stern would pant over it all the way to the top of the bestseller list, or that college kids would make it the one book they take on spring break----"
"...is the last thing on my mind," I assured her. "Really, I'm just trying to engage in a scholarly debate about some of the more nuanced aspects of statutory interpretation under Rule 861, subsection (c), paragraph 2... And besides, now that South Park has made the word so much a part of popular culture, I fail to see what all the fuss is about. When I hear young people singing lyrics that use the P-word, I just hum along. After all, there are no bad words, just ungood hermeneutics."
"No wonder Oprah canceled her book club," she muttered.
Seriously. We do seem to have entered a weird season in which the exercise of First Amendment rights has become a kind of XXX-treme Sport, with people taking the concept of free speech for an Olympic workout, as though to build up that constitutional muscle. People speak not just freely but wantonly, thoughtlessly, mainlined from their hormones. We live in a minefield of scorched-earth, who-me-a-diplomat?, let's-see-if-this-hurts words. As my young son twirls the radio dial in search of whatever pop music his friends are listening to, it is less the lyrics that alarm me than the disc jockeys, all of whom speak as though they were crashing cars. It makes me very grateful to have been part of the "love generation," because for today's youth, the spoken word seems governed by people from whom sticks and stones had to be wrested when they were children--truly unpleasant people who've spent years perfecting their remaining weapon: the words that can supposedly never hurt you.
The flight from the imagined horrors of political correctness seems to have overtaken common sense. Or is it possible that we have come perilously close to a state where hate speech is the common sense? In a bar in Dorchester, Massachusetts, recently, a black man was surrounded by a group of white patrons and taunted with a series of escalatingly hostile racial epithets. The bartender refused to intervene despite being begged to do something by a white friend of the man. The taunting continued until the black man tried to leave, whereupon the crowd followed him outside and beat him severely. In Los Angeles, the head of the police commission publicly called Congresswoman Maxine Waters a "bitch"--to the glee of Log Cabin Republicans, who published an editorial gloating about how good it felt to hear him say that. And in San Jose, California, a judge allowed a white high school student to escape punishment after the student, angry at an African-American teacher who had suspended his best friend, scrawled "Thanks, Nigga" on a school wall. The judge was swayed by an argument that "nigga" is not the same as "nigger" but rather an inoffensive rap music term of endearment common among soul brothers.
Frankly, if Harvard president Lawrence Summers is going to be calling professors to account for generating controversy not befitting that venerable institution, the disingenuous Professor Kennedy would be my first choice. Kennedy's argument that the word "nigger" has lost its sting because black entertainers like Eddie Murphy have popularized it, either dehistoricizes the word to a boneheaded extent or ignores the basic capaciousness of all language. The dictionary is filled with words that have multiple meanings, depending on context. "Obsession" is "the perfume," but it can also be the basis for a harassment suit. Nigger, The Book, is an appeal to pure sensation. It's fine to recognize that ironic reversals of meaning are invaluable survival tools. But what's selling this book is not the hail-fellow-well-met banality of "nigger" but rather the ongoing liveliness of its negativity: It hits in the gut, catches the eye, knots the stomach, jerks the knee, grabs the arm. Kennedy milks this phenomenon only to ask with an entirely straight face: "So what's the big deal?"
The New Yorker recently featured a cartoon by Art Spiegelman that captures my concern: A young skinhead furtively spray-paints a swastika on a wall. In the last panel, someone has put the wall up in a museum and the skinhead is shown sipping champagne with glittery fashionistas and art critics. I do not doubt that hateful or shocking speech can be "mainstreamed" through overuse; I am alarmed that we want to. But my greater concern is whether this gratuitous nonsense should be the most visible test of political speech in an era when government officials tell us to watch our words--even words spoken in confidence to one's lawyer--and leave us to sort out precisely what that means.
Do Not Employ Arabs, Enemies Should Not Be Offered a Livelihood and We Will Assist Those Who Do Not Provide Work For Arabs are just a few of the slogans covering billboards throughout Jerusalem. These placards refer to Palestinian citizens of Israel. One poster even provides a detailed list of taxi companies that employ Arab citizens and companies that don't. Jewish history, it seems, has been forgotten.
This kind of blatant racism is now common in Israel; it feeds off the widespread fear of suicide bombings, which have also managed to change the Jerusalem landscape. Downtown streets are almost empty, and most businesses have been seriously hurt because of the dramatic decline in clientele. A recent poll suggests that 67 percent of Israelis have reduced the number of times they leave their homes. The only companies that have been thriving in the past months are security firms. Every supermarket, bank, theater and cafe now employs private guards whose duty is to search customers as they enter the building.
One of the effects of this new practice is that profiling has become ubiquitous. Arab-looking residents refrain from using public transportation and from going to all-Jewish neighborhoods and shopping centers. It is not unusual in the city to see groups of Arab men searched at gunpoint by Israeli police, their faces against the wall and their hands in the air.
On the national level, politicians have been exploiting the pervasive fear, using it to foment a form of fervent nationalism tinged with racism. Effi Eitam, the new leader of the National Religious Party, recently approved to become a minister in Sharon's government, has characterized all Palestinian citizens of Israel as "a cancer." "Arabs," he claims, "will never have political rule in the land of Israel," which in Eitam's opinion includes the West Bank and Gaza. Support for Sharon has also risen from 45 to 62 percent following the latest Israeli offensive. The fact that Palestinian citizens, who make up almost 20 percent of the population, adamantly oppose Israel's military assault suggests that only one in five Jewish citizens is against Sharon's war. Most Jews consider themselves victims in this conflict, not aggressors.
The deeply rooted victim syndrome has been manipulated over the past year by the mainstream media in order to rally the public around the flag. For television viewers, Palestinian suffering is virtually nonexistent, while attacks on Jews are graphically portrayed, replayed time and again, thus rendering victimhood the existential condition of Israeli Jews. Radio and television have practically turned into government organs, allowing almost no criticism of Israel's policies to be aired.
It is within this stifling atmosphere that one must understand the slow resurgence of the Israeli peace camp. There are now about 400 new combat reservists who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, joining a similar number of refuseniks from Yesh Gvul ("There Is a Limit"). "We will not go on fighting beyond the 'green line' for the purposes of domination, expulsion, starvation and humiliation of an entire people," the soldiers wrote in an open letter. Since the eruption of the second intifada, eighty-seven conscientious objectors have been incarcerated; thirty-five are currently sitting in jail, more than in any other period in Israel's history.
On April 3, 4,000 Jewish and Arab protesters marched together from Jerusalem toward Kalandia checkpoint, located on the outskirts of Ramallah. The procession was led by women and included four truckloads of humanitarian aid. The demonstrators were stopped by a police blockade only minutes after they set out. As a member of the negotiation team, I was on the police side of the blockade when scores of tear gas canisters and stun grenades were thrown into the crowd. Policemen immediately pursued the protesters, trampling and violently beating them with their clubs. Among the injured were three Arab Knesset members. Later, while waiting for the trucks to return from Ramallah, a police officer explained that a woman precipitated the outburst: "She spat on one of the officers."
The next day, protesters gathered in front of the American Embassy in Tel Aviv to call on the US government to stop Israel's military incursion. The group was mostly composed of Palestinian citizens of Israel, although there were quite a few Jews. Again, the police assaulted the demonstrators, this time because one of them was carrying a Palestinian flag.
Two days later, on April 6, 15,000 people marched from Rabin Square to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, calling on Sharon to immediately withdraw all military forces from the occupied territories and to restart negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. "The occupation is killing us all!" the demonstrators shouted. Channel 2 spent twenty seconds covering the event; Channel 1, Israel's public station, ignored it.
Not everyone disregarded the protest. Likud Knesset Member Gideon Ezra called upon the secret services to begin monitoring more carefully the activities of leftist organizations and blamed the only two journalists who continue to document what is happening on the Palestinian side--Amira Hass and Gideon Levy--for encouraging the campaign against Israel. Given the increasingly repressive atmosphere inside Israel, it appears that without massive pressure from abroad--not unlike the sanctions imposed on South Africa--Israel will not withdraw from the occupied territories, nor will it cease to oppress and subjugate the Palestinian people.
As Halle Berry elegantly strode to the podium to accept her best actress Oscar, the first for a black woman, she wept uncontrollably and gasped, "This moment is so much bigger than me." Just as revealing was Denzel Washington's resolute dispassion as he accepted his best actor Oscar, only the second for a black man, by glancing at the trophy and uttering through a half-smile, "Two birds in one night, huh?" Their contrasting styles--one explicit, the other implied--say a great deal about the burdens of representing the race in Hollywood.
Berry electrified her audience, speaking with splendid intelligence and rousing emotion of how her Oscar was made possible by the legendary likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll. And in a stunning display of sorority in a profession riven by infighting and narcissism, Berry acknowledged the efforts of contemporary black actresses Angela Bassett, Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica Fox. But it was when Berry moved from ancestors and peers to the future that she spoke directly to her award's symbolic meaning. She gave the millions who watched around the globe not only a sorely needed history lesson but a lesson in courageous identification with the masses. Berry tearfully declared that her award was for "every nameless, faceless woman of color" who now has a chance, since "this door has been opened."
Berry's remarkable courage and candor are depressingly rare among famed blacks with a lot on the line: money, prestige, reputation and work. Many covet the limelight's payoffs but cower at its demands. Even fewer speak up about the experiences their ordinary brothers and sisters endure--and if they are honest, that they themselves too often confront--on a daily basis. To be sure, there is an unspoken tariff on honesty among the black privileged: If they dare go against the grain, they may be curtailed in their efforts to succeed or cut off from the rewards they deserve. Or they may endure stigma. Think of the huge controversy over basketball great Charles Barkley's recent comments--that racism haunts golf, that everyday black folk still fight bigotry and that black athletes are too scared to speak up--that are the common banter of most blacks. What Berry did was every bit as brave: On the night she was being singled out for greatness, she cast her lot with anonymous women of color who hungered for her spot, and who might be denied a chance for no other reason than that they are yellow, brown, red or black. Her achievement, she insisted, was now their hope.
At first blush, it may seem that Denzel Washington failed to stand up and "represent." But that would be a severe misreading of the politics of signifying that thread through black culture. Looking up to the balcony where Sidney Poitier sat--having received an honorary Oscar earlier and delivered a stately speech of bone-crushing beauty--Washington said, "Forty years I've been chasing Sidney...." He joked with Poitier, and the academy, by playfully lamenting his being awarded an Oscar on the same night that his idol was feted. Washington, for a fleeting but telling moment, transformed the arena of his award into an intimate platform of conversation between himself and his progenitor that suggested, "This belongs to us, we are not interlopers, nobody else matters more than we do." Thus, Washington never let us see him sweat, behaving as if it was natural, if delayed, that he should receive the highest recognition of his profession. His style, the complete opposite of Berry's, was political in the way that only black cool can be when the stakes are high and its temperature must remain low, sometimes beneath the detection of the powers that be that can stamp it out. This is not to be confused with spineless selling out. Nor is it to be seen as yielding to the cowardly imperative to keep one's mouth shut in order to hang on to one's privilege. Rather, it is the strategy of those who break down barriers and allow the chroniclers of their brokenness to note their fall.
Both approaches--we can call them conscience and cool--are vital, especially if Hollywood is to change. Conscience informs and inspires. It tells the film industry we need more producers, directors and writers, and executives who can greenlight projects by people of color. It also reminds the black blessed of their obligation to struggle onscreen and off for justice. Cool prepares and performs. It pays attention to the details of great art and exercises its craft vigorously as opportunity allows, thus paving the way for more opportunities. The fusion of both approaches is nicely summed up in a lyric by James Brown: "I don't want nobody to give me nothin'/Just open up the door, I'll get it myself."
Black filmmakers seize the moment.
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