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.
Compare this condemnation with Als’s characterization of Marshall Mathers III—the rapper Eminem—whom Als regards as a true artist. Mathers grew up in Warren, Michigan, a poor suburb of Detroit, and Als imagines him as a child “looking for words to describe his world, where blacks and whites had nowhere to go but their respective trailers,” where “white manual laborers could only hold on to the dream of whiteness by living among their own kind,” where he felt “about as welcome in the world as any black man.” In school, Mathers was the victim of black-on-white assault, and in his reaction to this and other incidents, Als sees his real triumph: “That the slings and arrows of Mathers’s outrageous misfortune in and out of school, in the outside of Detroit’s black world, did not deter him from falling increasingly in love with black music is a testament to his interest in and commitment to exploring difference.” A wonderfully convoluted sentence—no truth, it seems, is plain enough to state plainly—and a wonderfully earnest sentiment. “Exploring difference,” not exploiting difference, not ignoring difference—that is the job of the real artist, and that should also be the aspiration of every real human being. Black music made it possible for the young Marshall Mathers III to “feel articulate and alive to his white pain…. He was white. And that was his freedom.”
The majority of the essays in White Girls are concerned with the ways artists, writers and performers negotiate their own “difference,” which is to say not their race but their individuality, whatever that amounts to. “The Lonesome Place” is about Flannery O’Connor, herself a great explorer of difference, whose voice is “an uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars.” Richard Pryor, too, was a success in this regard. He “didn’t manipulate his audiences’ white guilt or their black moral outrage. If he played the race card, it was only to show how funny he looked when he tried to shuffle the deck.” By contrast, Michael Jackson—“the man who said no to life but yes to pop”—began his career as just the kind of artist Als loves: dancing “next to [Diana] Ross, adding polish to her appealingly jerky moves; he [did] Ross better than Ross.” Later, things went wrong in Jackson’s life and art because he “was not quite that articulate or vocal about his difference”—what Als, echoing James Baldwin, evocatively calls his “freakishness.” Jackson committed the same sin as Malcolm X, and the same sin as Baldwin himself, who, as Als wrote in a 1998 New Yorker essay, “found impersonating a black writer more seductive than being an artist.” Jackson “became a corporation” and “forgot how to speak, even behind the jeweled mask of metaphor.” He gave up authenticity for the sake of his career, and in doing so he lost his art and his self.
It’s worth taking note of the subtext here. Malcolm X’s failure is a moral failure, Als seems to argue, but “Philosopher or Dog?” is first of all about the failure of a book, so that the failure being described is really an aesthetic one. (And indeed, the book is all. Als doesn’t seem interested in Malcolm X’s repudiation of all that “rage.” This is a clever rhetorical trick. By limiting himself to a discussion of the Autobiography, he limits the scope of the material he has to grapple with but doesn’t limit the scope of the argument he’s able to make.) Als’s celebration of Marshall Mathers III is really a celebration of Eminem the artist, but the implication is that Marshall Mathers III must be a fine fellow to have made such good art. And whatever the justice of this equation—aesthetic success equals moral value and vice versa—Als seems to carry the argument still further. To suggest that Malcolm X’s bad book is evidence of a failure to create and perform a meaningful personality is to suggest that personality is itself a kind of artistic production. What’s striking is the sense I get that Als really means it. Personality, affect, public life—it’s not that these things are like theater. They are theater.
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Als has gained in notoriety since the publication of The Women, so he’s gone from being a “Negress” to a public intellectual, and more specifically a black public intellectual. In any case, he has become an object of regard—a semi-celebrity. He reflects on the frustrations of this transformation in “GWTW” (referring to the title of Gone With the Wind), an essay that originally appeared in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000). “What is the relationship of the white people in these pictures to the white people who ask me, and sometimes pay me, to be a Negro on the page?” “Why does a colored point of view authenticate” the photographs, “no matter what that colored person has to say?” Being forced to be “a Negro on the page” makes Als a black man first of all and only secondarily an individual, a critic, a man with an idiosyncratic point of view. In becoming a black man, that is, he is trapped like Malcolm X in the discourse of poverty and privilege. It isn’t only a problem for writers “of a color”; it is a problem for people “of a color” too. It is the tragedy of American life.
But who is Hilton Als really? Is he a Negress? Is he a black man or a black writer or an “auntie man,” as he occasionally describes himself in The Women? “For a long time, I avoided being the black guy,” he writes. “I felt that adopting black nationalism would limit my world, my worldview. Now I know from experience that the world has been limited for me by people who see me as a nigger.” Maybe so, but in the pages of White Girls he is ineluctably himself—he is Hilton Als, a human being who is also a writer—which is why this seems like a triumphant book. It is a pure expression of individuality, and in that sense it is an affirmation and celebration of individuality as well.
It’s also a reminder of what great criticism can do. Criticism, after all, is an expression of deep subjectivity. The role of the critic is to articulate a personal opinion so persuasively that it seems like a fact; a great critic is able to make a particularly heterodox opinion—even an expression of lunacy, if it comes to that—seem true and inevitable as well. Als is a great critic, which is to say that sometimes his writing is clear as glass and sometimes it’s astringently oblique. But somehow I always know what he means, and I always believe him.