Saturday, August 12, 2017

bad word

A Gothic cathedral affirms that it was done by us, and not done by us.

-- Emerson, "History"

In the mind of Thomas Bowdler (1754 - 1825), Cordelia could not die. Bowdler could not live in a world where innocence is so reviled. So when he edited Shakespeare, he altered the data, and gave his name forever to acts of cleaning up the past so we could feel better about it. As one who would in a fallen world act justly, I cannot bowdlerize. I must own my past in its horror as well in its beauty.

My quarrel with the Society for Creative Anachronism is that they squeeze history like a lime to get a drop or two of juice, and then serve up the sweetness as a truth. In their world, everybody is at least a duke (or duchess), and the thousands whose wretched existence enables their dancing and jousting are flushed from sight like so much pulp. Nor in these simulations of nobility is there any account of their filth and stink, their rotting teeth and arsenic-pocked faces.

I do love the art that rises from the muck of these ancient times, the poems and songs, the sculpture and architecture, the glass windows and microscopically intricate books of hours. The artifacts speak to me, strangely modern. I have come to think that our Enlightened view of the person, its interiority and sacrality, was born in the fantasy life of those landed pirates, who lived on stolen vitality and could afford to build a chamber for themselves and close its door. The notion of human rights is a multiply sublimated product of class envy.

And yet we cannot live without universal human rights. Any regime that renounces them is a roller coaster to hell. You and I can't talk about justice without presupposing that every person's rights are unalienable. Otherwise it's just you against me, my fist against your knife, my big brother against your bigger one, my gun against your missile, until we all are dead or wish we were. Whether we measure up to justice as we talk about it -- well, that's a different matter, isn't it? When did that ever happen?

Therefore, though I am obliged to accept the noble heritage of humanity, as an adult human being I must also own the stink and rot. Otherwise I might imagine I am noble. No surgeon can separate the rights of persons from the primacy of sin.

Therefore I will not bowdlerize history. I will not whitewash the record of my people's sins.

There is a word I must not say because it was born in the malice of my people, and the saying of it by people like me encompasses centuries of abuse, violence and terror. But I must maintain the record of its use. I must not say the word, but sometimes I must quote it. I cannot tell my children, "There is a word you must never speak, and I won't tell you what it is."

It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterward, neither.

-- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

By putting nigger in white characters' mouths, the author is not branding blacks, but rather branding the whites.

-- Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word

I must not let the word be erased from history. We must know that it has been spoken and written, and continues to be so. We must know its harm, even though knowing its harm is painful. Painful to you, my sib of color, but painful to me as well. And yes I know that my pain with the word is not the same as your pain, not as mortal in its wound. But it is my pain, and I lie if I conceal it. I eschew the bad word not only because saying it would be wrong, but also because the word hurts me. It hurts me that people who look like me, from whom I inherit genes and privileges, obtained their gifts so viciously.

What, I ask, would we achieve if we could expunge from all historic records, all novels and poems, each occurrence of the bad word? Then our children would not know what you, and we sometimes together, have struggled for. They would not know the poisons that pervade our land, the toxin that now rises from the swamp of ignorance and privation. They would say, what in the world are you so concerned about, silly grandpa? Grandma, why this talk of revolution? The past is always disappointing, never to be adored. There is no trigger warning adequate for this: to meet the past is thrilling, and dangerous, and terrifying. It gives us life and drags us down to death.

If I write a Western story, and in my story Bad Bart comes to town and robs the bank, that does not make me a bank-robber, nor does it make me an advocate of bank-robbing. Anyone who said so would reveal himself as an incompetent reader. Bad Bart is not me. Bad Bart is imaginary, and evil.

So if Sam Clemens tells the story of an abused and ignorant boy growing up in a two-bit town in the slave-state of Missouri, and if that boy speaks of his enslaved companion by the word I cannot say, that does not make Sam Clemens a racist or a sympathizer of racism. Huck Finn is not Sam Clemens. Huck Finn is imaginary, and ignorant.

If Huck did not use the bad words of his time and place, the story would be worthless, as phony as a three-dollar bill. Then the story would be complacent and racist.

The best thing about Huck Finn is that he runs away. He carries with him the ignorance, hypocrisy and moral inversion of the town he has escaped from. Wherever you go, there you are. Adrift on the river, his companion a man that immoral laws had made a piece of property, he learns that his right place before that man may be humility. Huck never achieves perfection, nor does his author. But the resistance of Huck and Sam to the nation's original sin is one of the reasons why their story has been revered, not only by Americans but by authors from other shores as well.

In the house of my father the radical pastor the bad word was forbidden. We were taught with rigor that other, respectful word: "Negro." This distinction was one of the sacred values of our home, setting us above the saeculum, the world ruled by those who "didn't know any better." It was a distinction not only of morals but of class as well. So in my genteel Yankee childhood and youth, I never heard the word except as a prohibition, or a shocking evidence of sin. But when we went south, to visit the rural half of the family, I met itinerant black laborers and tenant farmers and their families, who worked on my grandpa's land. Some of the white farmers would speak the bad word in the raw, but for the most part my family spoke of "Nigg-ruhs."

In that neologism can be read the history of the south, its white folk still angry from the Reconstruction, soon to be placed under federal authority by the Voting Rights Act. You don't know these people, they were saying. We've lived with them for centuries; and we'll be damned before we'll say that word you Yankees are so proud of. "Nee-grow," you say. We'll keep our distance from white trash all right, but we'll keep distance from you as well, Galahad, with a word that's neither fish nor fowl. "Nigg-ruh." Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Compliant and defiant at the same time, they told their history: the romance of a misguided Reconstruction that had awarded franchise and property rights to people who "were not ready." From that inevitable chaos and corruption all had been rescued, they taught, by mercies of the Klan and Plessy v. Ferguson.

Now in my Yankee old adulthood, the word is still not in my vocabulary. I never hear it in my house, or in my social and professional circles, but I hear it on the street, and in the subway, and in front of the bodega. Those who speak the word around me are black men.

And I've heard the word from a generation of black comedians, and I hear it in the fiction and the drama of black authors.

I know the word's use by some black people is a grief to others. It is a grief to me as well, though for special white reasons that lack authority. It is respectful to assume that my brothers and sisters know what they are doing, choose their words for a purpose, and achieve something by their choice. Perhaps they are drawing distinctions among themselves. Or perhaps, like gays who call themselves "queer," they are bleeding the word of its toxin, making it familiar and affectionate in their mouths. Perhaps they are universalizing the black experience, making it definitive in the place of epic whiteness. Not for me to say, though as ally I cannot fail to take an interest.

That the word hurts me is perhaps a side benefit. If I'm a grownup, I'll handle it.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

island flickers

from the island

. . . writing compensates for nothing, . . . is precisely there where you are not.

-- Roland Barthes*

island flickers
(from Christine's words
on yes an island)

somewhere else you speak
mediated face a screen
flickers on a phone

no don’t look not now
eyes shut to breathe the world in
hummingbird at nose

chatter flutter stop
squirrel in his tree suspends
hawk is on the move

far shore feathered now
crossing channel light in light
rises mist on dusk

*A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978), p. 100.

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