CALVIN BAKER is the author of four acclaimed novels and of a recent book entitled A More Perfect Reunion: Race Integration and the Future of America.
Robert Boyers: One of the extraordinary things about your new book is the way you patiently excavate and analyze American history as a way of entering the issues and controversies we confront today. But then you also take us into Othello and remind us that “it would be three hundred years before a black actor, Paul Robeson, could play Othello in a major production.” Much to ask you about the founders’ generation, but let me select but one single passage from your chapter on “The Toll of Independence,” and ask you to flesh it out a bit, if you will. You had been speaking of John Adams, and write the following: “I used to be among the camp he chastises, regarding those who professed freedom while participating in slavery as hypocrites of the first order. My thinking has evolved and deepened over time. I think the spirit of revolution in the colonies was close to rapture. The people we think of, North and South, when we say Founders…were in fact all dead set against slavery and treated liberty with religious seriousness.”
My question: What precipitated the evolution you cite? Was it principally that you had time to study and digest things that most of us take in without much thought? Was it that circumstances—your own—allowed you to think about individual actors like Jefferson or Adams with a generosity to which in the past—for very good and obvious reasons—you were not much disposed? Was it, in fact, that at some point, observing participants in contemporary debates about race, you found yourself missing that quality of “religious seriousness”—seriousness of any kind—required to deal candidly with issues of enormous moral importance?
Calvin Baker: That’s well parsed, Bob. It was a combination of factors. The first was a longstanding attempt to understand the ways in which America was constructed— this particular intersection of histories and ideas and human psychology. I’ve been engaged with the question of America in relation to the world, as a composite, multicultural or transnational construction, and the America we know at this particular point in time, since my first book, Naming the New World.
I wrote about the pre-Revolutionary era in my third novel, Dominion, which depicts an epoch that’s usually hidden from our view, due to a paucity of written records. The book takes place from 1705 (when Virginia enacted its slave codes—among other things these laws evicted free Black people from the colony) until the end of the Revolutionary War.
It’s an alternate creation myth set amidst the different possible creation myths that were vying for primacy at the time. The novel ends soon after the Battle of Saratoga, which may interest you. This is the point at which all of these forces and counter forces that continue to collide and reverberate through America today collapse from many possibilities into the myth that creates us, which is a legal compromise between colonialism and the Enlightenment. I should add the Enlightenment itself has some real conceptual flaws, which continue to plague liberalism in ways I’ll return to. Until the point of the first Constitution notions of religion, wealth, and, of course, race were still in flux. What that document does is say: we have freethinkers over here and slaveholders over here, so this is how we’ll hold the caucus together.
We might have become an egalitarian country of transcendentalists, which is a dream many people still hold. We might all have been assimilated into Algonquin culture, or become an Anglican monarchy, for that matter. Instead there was this compromise that we have been warring over ever since—religion, the place of corporations in national life, whether that life is ideally urban or rural, and, of course, race. It’s all there from the beginning and it’s all still here with us.
To my thinking at the time, Dominion was its own act of myth-making—about the free black population in the multiracial colonies, who were essentially shunted to the edge of society to better make way for slavery. It was also a complex metaphor, or historical analogy, for the moment in which the book was being created, which was the turn of this century. Everyone was asking the perennial questions of race, as well as global questions that ran toward: why do they hate us? I had also been thinking about the Aeneid, as well as some of the early 20th Century literatures of mythmaking, and it felt like the right time to go back and grapple with the origins of this entity called us, and this entity called they, in a manner that was aware of all the unspoken claims of those pronouns, and the underlying belief systems that support them. This is a longwinded way of saying: I’d been carrying around the idea for a long time, and wanted to write about an America in which people of color were free.
By the time I wrote about race and democracy directly I had been holding all of this in my mind for decades— the history, and the idea that we live inside a conflicted textual construction. And the inevitable question: how does one escape it?
Shakespeare, who was contemporaneous with the Virginia colony, represents a prior historical or cultural consciousness. The fate of those first Africans, which I also discuss, shows how Americans in many ways chose to subscribe to worldviews that simply satisfied their own vanity and greed, as do most people.
When I considered the architects of the American experiment I didn’t view them as abstract, unknowable beings (to be deified or vilified according to one’s point of view), but as authors and actors—self-aware, even to the point of self-consciousness in some cases—upon a stage.
I used dozens and dozens of secondary texts, of course, but my first way of looking was through their own writings, and by asking: who the hell are these guys? That immediately opened another dimension, beyond the usual debate we have about the virtues and evils of American origins.
The other element in all of this was my own life, the accumulated experience of living in the world and living in this country—moving me to try to imagine those people, those architects of the American experiment, in a human context.
Of course I saw that all of the things we debate now were being debated in familiar terms by the time of the Missouri Compromise. That the deadlock we see now is the central fact of American political life—an ostensibly democratic revolution, shaped, constrained by the pre-existing facts of slavery and white supremacy, which happen to be hugely profitable.
But once you look at it in human terms you start to see something more insidious and tragic, and perfectly relatable. It moves from: what the hell were they thinking, or what bastards, to, yeah, I’ve met enough people and listened to enough political debates to put some things together.
Jefferson is a particularly interesting character. I don’t think he was a great intellectual, as people like to claim. He was at base a derivative thinker, though very smart, torn between self-interest, received ideas, emotional intelligence and desires, and a Kantian problem he, like most Enlightenment thinkers, couldn’t get past. If you broke the man in pieces you’d have all of American politics. He was also, of course, a born player. Then there’s Adams, who has the distinction of being the first president who wasn’t in the founding generation, but whose father was, and had served as president. The younger Adams, like Jefferson, became a trove of information about what exactly Americans thought this was all about. They were largely men in their thirties and forties. There is a great deal of tension between idealism, socialization, and personal ambition.
As a novelist I found this degree of inner and outer conflict too rich to treat in simplistic ways. I wanted to capture the tensions between competing historical facts, human impulses, and political dynamics that would go on to produce such continuous, dynamic torture in the national soul.
A simpler way of putting it is this: you can easily imagine any of the original architects on the field of contemporary politics, in which most of the country is liberal but power is weighted toward the right and centrists believe they have some kind of unique Platonic wisdom, though they are unaware of the ways they are produced culturally and politically by their times. Maybe even uninterested in that condition. Asking themselves “What’s going to get me the power I crave, poised as we are between horrendous oppression and my personal belief in universal freedom—a freedom which clearly cannot extend to Africans or native-Americans in the same way?”
The other thing to remember is that money was on the slavery side, and had made many of these people rich in ways they could not have aspired to be in England, because they had little station or unique ability. But the colonial economy had made them rich. If you were English you would have said they’d gotten too far above their station. Again, greed and vanity. Ideology for many of them, as for most of us today, was secondary.
RB: Your book contains so many rich and provocative insights on our present dilemmas that it’s hard for me to know what to emphasize. But let me start with a telling point you make when you’re discussing the continuing segregation of the country’s schools—and the uneven outcomes we see in tests for seats in desirable schools. “In New York City,” you write, “after nine years of attending segregated, impoverished schools, students must take a test that measures mastery of subject matter to determine whether or not they may attend one of New York’s elite high schools. After thirteen years of ghetto schooling, they sit for the SAT…..One solution has been to offer free test prep to poor kids, as though a few months spent learning the tricks of the test can make up for going to school in the ghetto your government and fellow citizens spent eighty years building for you.” What are we doing? “We play a shell game,” you write, “of pretending to ‘fix’ the problem by teaching students to be better test takers….If our real business is to maintain the status quo, while assuaging our conscience into thinking we are acting, then we are doing just fine.”
In several respects, Calvin, that passage seems to me not only persuasive but also a way into the broader discussion your book relentlessly opens up for us. Let me underline what seems to me central as a preliminary foundation for what follows.
You argue that piecemeal efforts to “fix” the problems you cite will not work. Thus, a test-prep cannot “make up for going to school in the ghetto.” Going to school in the ghetto, you say, more or less ensures that black kids will move “in reverse,” that is, will fail to keep pace with other kids in their studies and thus not join other kids in moving up.
And so I ask what is it that makes an education in a ghetto school—an essentially segregated school, such as most black kids in 2021 attend—an almost certain path to failure? By this time virtually all of us who are politically left of center—liberals, progressives, socialists, white and black—acknowledge the critical importance of diversity and the elimination of segregated schools. And yet there remain questions we seem not to know how to answer, or to ask. Reading you, hearing you talk, I sometimes feel we know the answers but just don’t want to take them in. And yet I ask:
Is it that the teachers in those schools are less competent than teachers in other schools?
Is it that those schools—let’s use New York City as an example for this question—are drastically underfunded compared with public schools in other city neighborhoods? Is the funding thus reflected in larger class sizes in the ghetto schools, or fewer available books or computers?
Or are such questions in fact irrelevant to the issue you want us to confront?
Would your sense of the problem extend as well to segregated classrooms in selected neighborhoods of Bedford Stuyvesant and other Brooklyn ghetto districts where parents and community leaders have lately set up ethnocentric schools specifically geared to provide a suitable education for black children? Are such schools bound to fail in their educational mission because they are segregated schools? If not, what would make for the difference?
CB: I used education as one of the examples of the ways we contort ourselves to accommodate racial structures that harm black people, while avoiding the fundamental fact that this society continues to be governed by segregated institutions and structures. As long as we position our thinking within that framework it’s doomed to fail. In the specific case of schools there’s an inherent victim-blaming, i.e.: what’s wrong with black kids? There’s nothing wrong with black kids, other than the fact that they are black in a country where many of their fellow citizens hate them and in which “white problems” are seen as understandable challenges, but “black problems” are pathologies. We’ve managed to integrate every ethnic group from Europe, including groups who were viewed in European contexts as inherently unassimilable. Yet we’ve managed somehow to bring them all into the folds of American society. Moreover for some magic reason the success of nonwhites tracks exactly according to the Enlightenment chain of being thinking that gives us scientific racism. I used the present tense intentionally. But what one sees among European immigrants is an erasure of Old World prejudices, which no doubt those in the Old World viewed as scientific, and active assimilation in whiteness. This society looks exactly as it was engineered to look, and ghetto schools do exactly what ghetto schools were designed to do.
We know that segregation in education, in media, in economics, in law, etc. was a practice intended to produce disadvantageous outcomes for African-Americans. In education we have living memory of the fight to desegregate the schools, and the myriad strategies white Americans found to resegregate. As a curative for the problems of race, integration was theorized by de Tocqueville, Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr., and widely embraced by the civil rights movement since the Civil War. What it essentially aims to do, I think, is deconstruct the ways race has been constructed in America.
There has been both tacit and violent resistance to it, even among those who claim to want equal outcomes, and despite the evidence we have that it is, in fact, possible. Instead we shift the conversation to talk about tests, or wealth, or diversity, or pathologize black people. The reason we do this is because many white people are fearful of their own status, and any gain by blacks is understood as either a loss for whites or a diminution in their status.
So we have all these ways in which the social custom of segregation remains alive and well. At some level I think white Americans understand intrinsically that all of this is made up and might be taken away from them. If your forebears arrived from some European, feudal backwater and were taught that they were better than black people simply because they were from Europe and therefore “white” and given opportunities accordingly it has to feel threatening if black people are given the same kinds of opportunity.
So nearly everyone who has any insecurity about their status in America, which is a great many people, is invested in the racial state to one degree or another, which has provided their livelihoods and sense of self. The idea of upending that provokes an unending amount of motivated reasoning, or solipsism.
Black kids are as smart as any other kids. Black teachers are as capable as any other teachers. Yet we spend time on nonsense like debating their intelligence. If one begins with the postulate that segregated schools, or any other institutions, were designed to produce unequal outcomes, as the civil rights movement did, then the logical solution is to deny segregation the ground it needs to do its work.
What one should ask is: why are these schools so segregated? You must ask the same question of every other segment of the society. More importantly one must ask: how do we accelerate ourselves out of where we are?
To the question of black parents—in the overwhelming majority of cases, they’re simply looking for room anywhere in this society where their children aren’t constantly under assault. I have no idea whether ethnocentric schools are effective pedagogically, but psychologically and spiritually I imagine they provide some balm.
RB: You contend that if we sent kids to integrated schools for three generations we would see an amelioration of most of the problems we face. That we have not tried to do that—not tried to get beyond “assuaging our conscience” by making cosmetic adjustments to the status quo—suggests that even the white liberals who largely control the landscape in most large cities are simply not willing to do what is obviously required.
And so I ask: How are we to get where you would wish us to go? That is: if white people who live in a place like New York City, or Boston, or Philadelphia, are unwilling to send their kids to inner city schools where the black children will remain overwhelmingly more numerous, is there any feasible way to do anything about that? Will white people—whether liberal or conservative—do what is required for real integration in spite of their fears? Can parents be prevented from moving to suburbs, or sending their kids to private schools, or Catholic schools? Is there a way to prevent them from taking such steps in the event that large numbers of black children are to be bused into schools outside ghetto neighborhoods? I want to understand what can actually be done in situations where white people—including most white “progressives”—will continue to resist busing, and a good many black parents will resist it as well.
CB: My point is that one of the fundamental strategies that racist structures rely upon is segregation. You’ve enunciated all the methodologies white Americans have devised to resist integration, in order to keep from relinquishing white power. They will move, or build a new school before they will share a classroom or knowledge with black people. It’s worth pointing out that education was legally forbidden to black Americans. But the law is only one site of racial injustice. There are physical sites as well, not to mention the obvious mental structures that reproduce or reinforce the raceline. We see this in every area of society.
The most telling aspect of how much whiteness means to people is the vast effort exerted to maintain it. It’s far more energy-consuming to continuously construct and reconstruct these white spaces than to simply allow people to mingle. You have to police those spaces. You have to build ghettos. You have to sit down and devise absurd theories to account for what’s actually plain for all to see. The entire line of inquiry reduces to a single question: can one prevent white people from re-creating the racial state that produced them, and which a great many of them hold so dear?
Two more generative questions I’ve been asking in my works of fiction as well as nonfiction: What does an America not organized around race look like? What do black freedom and humanity look like in the absence of oppression and surveillance? That’s where Ellison leaves off. That’s where Baldwin really was as a thinker. Where, if it doesn’t presume too much, I think Gayl Jones and Charles Johnson were taking us. What happens to people when they leave the prison their society has built for them?
The use the mainstream has always had for writing by Black people is pretty narrow, and revolves around what I call a ritual of racial awakening. It begins in earnest with autobiographical writers like Equiano, Wheatley, Douglass, and so on. They were telling white people about the crimes this society commits day in and day out against black people. The crimes whiteness has relied upon to assert its dominance. By the time you get to Richard Wright’s Black Boy there’s still vitality in the genre, primarily due to Wright’s own genius, but after that the ritual is played out. The society could no longer stake a claim to innocence, and the black writers could no longer pretend to be revealing something that wasn’t already confirmed. This was Baldwin’s first realization as a writer in the 1950s. The old form had been co-opted, and everything after Wright was suspect, because it functioned as a song and dance routine maintained by audience and author, the goal of which was to help people “learn” something that was absolutely apparent. The “knowledge” on offer served to both punish and absolve the white reader. It changed very little, though it did reproduce the race line for a literary audience. Of course when Baldwin finally gave his own bravura performance in The Fire Next Time that became his defining work for white audiences. Black writers in the generation after him saw it in a different light. They didn’t need to be told what black life was in this country. They were interested in liberating themselves from it, as Baldwin was as a young man. So it goes. None of this ever changes. It’s only ever a question of how prepared American society is to truly hear it.
The last thing I’ll say on the topic is: I think it’s false equivalency whenever we claim black parents resist integration in the same manner white parents do. In the case of black parents the underlying question is: how much racism am I willing to allow my children to suffer? It isn’t am I willing to participate on equal terms with others.
&emspIf we take it all the way and ask: how do we eradicate the racial state into which we were all born, then the answer might be: everyone in the country has to wake up an hour earlier every day for the next fifty years. No one wants to hear this, but it isn’t any greater an effort than millions of white parents put into trying to maintain or better their places in the racial state.
RB: You’ve written that race is both catalyzing and incomplete, that it “reduces things to its own terms.” Thus, as you say, when we’re talking among friends, we’re just friends, but when we go out into the world we inevitably see things through racial frames. That, you say, is the way of things, and the way things have long been.
And yet I want to ask whether efforts made by a great many people, white and black, to remove those racial frames and to try to see things without reducing them to racial terms is not widely regarded by most progressive thinkers—white and black—as hopelessly naïve and decidedly premature? Though very few writers suggest that we can entirely dispose of race as a factor in our lives and in our thinking, many have tried to formulate a kind of post- racial-identity thinking and sought to recall us to the ambition associated with the outdated metaphor of “the melting pot.” Would you agree that those efforts are routinely derided, and that we cannot now hope to do what Doctor King demanded, that is, to judge one another strictly on the content of our character? Is that something we will have to wait to do when we have as a society fought our way out of the state we are in?
CB: Bob, I think you know that I’ve had a yoga practice for a number of years. It’s a remarkable system for the sophistication with which it articulates different aspects of being. The physical practice most people usually think of simply as yoga, though there are more than a half dozen other practices that are less visible, and much harder than standing on your head all day. One of the concepts I always find illuminating is the idea that we are all made of successive sheaths of self, beginning with the physical body, which gives way to mental bodies, emotional bodies, spiritual bodies, and so forth —culminating in stuff I don’t claim to fully understand. I suspect enduring art arises from one of those inner bodies, but there’s stuff still higher. Why else do we speak of art as received? From whence? There’s no acceptable name for such a plane that doesn’t provoke reason to defend itself as the supreme force, which it clearly isn’t in the field of human affairs. It’s useful, of course, but my God isn’t it vain, and full of the will to power?
I also happen to think a great deal of human experience functions in a similar manner—there’s the small fraction we can see and articulate, and all of these other layers we seldom discuss, or wall off into specific areas of our lives. In Western terms I think Jung comes closest to giving us a fully articulated secular language for these phenomena that rational thought rejects—probably because of the power struggle between the Enlightenment and religion—but Jung, who was a man of medicine as well as a medicine man, tries to put reason back in the place some of the ancients did, as an important but fractional portion of the human being.
Now when we talk about race we are immediately entering a dysfunctional frame. Race begins in a pseudoscientific rationalization of why white people are superior and are therefore inherently permitted to colonize other people, other animals, even the earth itself. It’s Renaissance Chain of Being stuff transposed into a system of reason, whose unspoken desire is to colonize the globe.
If I’m right about this, and I believe I am, how does anything that makes sense emerge from that line of thinking? Of course we speak of race as a totalizing condition. Anything else destabilizes the frame. White this, black that, Asian this, etc. But we know there is no apex. All cultures are equal. Because of history and culture these things do have a meaning, of course. They have taken on the meaning of what it is to navigate this world in this sheath or that. And as soon as one begins speaking of these things everyone behaves as if this didn’t inform a horribly simplistic worldview, which, as with all aspects of the raceline, helps orient people in the ways those who wished to colonize the world desired. Even our talk here has to contend with the difficulty of pushing all of that aside so that we can have the real conversation we want to have.
When MLK says: “the content of our character” the words activate the part of us that knows better, in the full sense of that term, and understands it’s only a social construction.
Our investment in racial tribes hijacks all of the other alternative thought systems and fuels what in my book I call a technology of oppression. This in turn affects the distribution of resources. And then, as I’ve said before, race is supposed to be the ultimate status marker, so that integration is bound to be threatening. Black achievement is threatening.
RB: You refer to your own family of origin as invested in “respectability politics,” much like my own working class family a generation before yours. And no doubt it can rightly be said that a politics that once seemed not only promising but essential—even during the heyday of the civil rights era— no longer seems promising to many people, given how much it failed to accomplish. You wonder—and why not?—whether a respectability politics isn’t bound to maintain the status quo.
And so I ask, first, whether you’d be willing to speak a bit about respectability politics, to define it and speak to its appeal and its limitations. Do you believe that a respectability politics is really as hopeless as many critics—white and black—now contend? What would a politics that is not at all describable in those terms look like, and what realistic hopes might it entertain for winning hearts and minds in a country that continues, even in east coast cities, to elect to public office liberal centrists or right of center candidates? Obama was associated with hope and change, and of course people on the right continue to call him a radical or worse. And yet we know that this notion of Obama was always ridiculous and misleading, that he was, in important respects, a respectability politician—both by temperament and by conviction. Do you suppose that the country is ready to elect to national office, or to the Senate, someone who clearly rejects respectability politics? What made Bernie Sanders something other than a respectability politician? Would a politician like Ocasio-Cortez be a plausible national office holder if she were to repudiate more or less entirely the kind of moderation and (however delusional) consensus building I associate with the term respectability politics?
CB: There are a few thoughts that come immediately to mind I want to share. The first is that, at base, the American melting pot reduces to Englishness, and English performances of class. Everyone, from the Dutch in the 17th century to whoever took the oath of citizenship yesterday, is expected to abide by public norms, whatever the local inflection, that remain essentially legible from Los Angeles to London.
The peculiarity arises in the black context, because it’s divorced from class in America. I can be emperor, but if I’m black I have to appease the cultural norms in ways a white emperor is free to ignore or upend, and I think this was true for many black firsts, this idea that you have to be, essentially, more English than the English. So that even at the level of the presidency African-Americans are judged differently.
When we speak of European immigrants there’s this three- generation narrative of acceptance. Yet Africans have been here exactly nineteen fewer years than the English, and are still being asked to prove their worth. There is no ritual narrative of black success in this country, or at least not one white America is comfortable with, beyond certain glass ceilings, because black success is suspect, or forbidden. We must appeal to the exceptional when describing black merit or achievement. Though some attention has been paid to the most grotesque forms of white supremacy—from housing projects to police brutality—in the main, in the mainstream, people have been content to embrace instead a national narrative of black pathology.
It’s no accident the two black politicians we’ve seen ascend to elected national office have immigrant narratives they can tell, which white America can both exoticize and cast themselves into empathetically. Colonial societies need buffers between themselves and the natives. This isn’t to deny anyone’s accomplishments. I admire the hell out of them both. It’s simply to point out America’s discomfort with the blackness that defines the country’s history. We need exceptionalism, because we abide this myth that there’s something wrong with black people, which is far more comforting than the reality that there is something abhorrent about what is done to black people every day.
The politics of respectability demands that you have to be twice as smart and work twice as hard. Black respectability politics says: if you don’t do that you’re a fool, and, by the way, you’re letting down the whole entire race, because blackness is inherently threatening, and we have to make our way on our own no matter what.
This has been our history since the Civil War. The government freed the three million outcast people but did nothing to bring them into the society. This is where you get Dubois’s talented tenth, which says there’s an especially capable part of the Negro population, as it was called, and we have to build for ourselves and for the rest of the race as well.
Yes, I know, that was a hundred years ago, and yet it’s still true, of course, that bargain with “reality,” and so I ask why let white people define the terms that determine whether or not I’m behaving acceptably? I’ve been told I shouldn’t be so blunt, and that I may invite censure in ways that will make my life difficult. But it’s late in the day, and we’re all so much further behind than we should be. Why not simply tell it like it is at this hour?
The reality is that illiberalism in America is deeper than we admit. It’s only in the past fifty years that the abhorrent racism we see in today’s Republican party has become socially unacceptable. “White” liberals, of course, measure themselves against “white” conservatives, even as white nationalism has always been front and center. After the Civil Rights Act you needed a Nixon to give it all an establishment sheen. If the country is still 50-50 it is primarily because half the nation believes, desperately needs to believe, in the inferiority of black people and wishes to prevent them from advancing any further. The Democratic party measures itself against that, and much that is officially regarded as deplorable still undergirds our national politics.
If I have but zero interest as an artist in proving myself to such a system, then respectability politics make no sense. I’m not interested in a different deal. I won’t apologize for who or what I am, and if this society still isn’t prepared to contend with that so be it, but part of my function in this society’s chain of being is to hold a space for black freedom. I’ve known that a very long time, since I was 9-years-old, and it has never changed, and so those are the terms by which I live and die, which isn’t meant to be dramatic. It’s simplythe deal I made with myself a long time ago.
RB: The concept of white fragility—which you allude to in your book—has attracted considerable attention in the last year or two. For one thing, it refers to the way that white people are said to recoil and grow defensive “whenever their ideas about race and racism are challenged,” as Robin DiAngelo has written in a book that has attracted an enormous and almost wholly uncritical following. She also declares that “white people are sensationally, histrionically bad at discussing racism,” and that they “lack the ‘racial stamina’ to engage in difficult conversations.”
Though there is much more to the argument—including DiAngelo’s demand that whites learn to be “less white,” that is “to break with while silence and white solidarity, to stop privileging the comfort of white people”—I want to ask, first, whether you think it’s largely the case that white liberals in fact continue to shy away from conversations about race? Is it not true that in a great many corporations, and in colleges and universities across the country, people are extraordinarily invested in conversations about race, in consciousness-raising sessions and seminars? And is it not the case that to a considerable degree these sessions are designed precisely to challenge comfortable views of race relations and to provide a framework in which discomfort can be generated and also be made to feel somehow beneficial, even virtuous?
Second, I want to ask you about the term “racial stamina.” I’ve never heard that one before, and it strikes me as a bizarre term, perhaps because I don’t adequately understand it. Is it meant to suggest that when people object to something that is said about them, or people like them, they do so primarily because they are too weak or frightened to just accept it? If they refuse to accept something that they take to be misleading, or flatly untrue, does this suggest that they ought to yield to the imputation, whatever it might be, and however they feel about it? I would think that the refusal to yield to an imputation or an argument, the determination to push back against it, would be a mark not of inadequate “racial stamina” but, on the contrary, some strength of resistance.
And finally: Why the epithet “racial” in front of the word “stamina”? What does that epithet suggest? Really I want to understand this better than I do. I’m no fan of the DiAngelo book, as you well know, and that’s one reason I wonder at the degree to which it has been so widely and uncritically embraced.
CB: Bob, I know that I allude to that book, and yet I can’t help thinking that at best it’s a sort of literary fad, and at worst a form of white face. At bottom the book is a way to ostensibly discuss “race” and justice while privileging whiteness. Why isn’t Decolonizing The Mind on the bestseller list?
One of the things I’m trying to get across in A More Perfect Reunion is that the idea of whiteness is inherently invested in empowering the people who associate with it. It’s seductive. Terms like white privilege or white fragility are uninteresting to me, because they’re fundamentally invested in reaffirming that there is such a thing as “whiteness”; that this “whiteness” is inherently powerful, privileged, worth talking about, etc., in order to dictate the terms around which progress occurs. Human vanity says it’s always going to be something that makes me feel good, without jeopardizing my position, so we have to look at something like White Fragility as an emblem or a cultural artifact. As you know, that’s the way I treat it in the book, and what I think its real utility is: In the early 21st century this is where the preponderance of white-identified people in America, including intellectuals, were, or claimed to be, in their awareness of race, and their comfort level in talking about race. They were having revival meetings. But I’m more curious about what happens when the meeting is over, and everyone returns to their habitual lives.
If we pulled up to the mile high view, in which we could see all of history, and the moment we occupy, there would be nothing surprising. We would say, ah: here’s a system that only recently abolished apartheid, but is still fundamentally segregated, tip-toeing forward, but still in thrall to its past. Whenever I’m “privileged” to speak to leaders, I always tell them: focus on where you want to go, not the noise.
Remember that the second favorite book of a great many white Americans, after the Bible, across all other belief systems is, Gone With the Wind, so that’s the frame of reference, a Lost Cause narrative about the Civil War, which is to say: historical revisionism—long-suffering, noble slavers, happy darkies, and all the other blather America wants to believe, claims periodically to wake from, because they did not know better. Rubbish. It’s a fantasy, in which being white replaces being highborn as the essential marker that determines whether you are valued or not.
When we talk about American “readers” we’re talking about a demographic that romanticizes the Lost Cause narrative of the civil war, having a conversation with itself about race. Robin DiAngelo herself is mimicking the racial awakening narrative, and just happens to be a white savior, come to speak to “her people,” as she calls them. From top to bottom it’s a modality that embraces whiteness, sympathizes with it, and affirms it.
We might pull back further to examine the frame from which it emerges, i.e. White Studies, an academic movement among whites to deconstruct race in a segregated setting.
So we have a segregated academic culture, producing a field that has been embraced by an overwhelmingly white publishing establishment, celebrated by an equally white critical machinery, and bought by people who love Gone with the Wind. You need a great comedic talent, such as Dave Chapelle, to truly reveal it all. I mean, we’re talking about this thing that’s intellectually reductive by any other measure, but for the fact that we’re still in this 18th century frame around race.
In A More Perfect Reunion I employ DiAngelo as an example of the fundamental untrustworthiness of subjective conversations around race. Yet obviously it’s easier, and more inviting, for “white” people to pretend to be learning something, in this case about their own defense mechanisms, than to talk about solutions. I had a conversation with a white woman about integration when I was working on the book, and she said: that’s too radical. My grandmother—who’s a conservative—would be much more comfortable with “White Fragility.” It’s something she could understand.
As for “white stamina,” it’s simply a euphemism for the inherent defense mechanisms many white people employ to maintain control, even in an allegedly liberal context. A linguistic emotional performance to prevent acknowledging the enmeshment of white liberals with white conservatives. Black English has much more efficient ways to describe all of this, the most common of which is the phrase: you know how liberals are. Any black person hearing that will shrug, grimace, laugh, but also experience a sense of relief, because there’s no space in white English to say this in exactly the same way. One has to bring in philosophical, sociological, psychoanalytical language. White people will hear the phrase and wonder: is that me? If one asks honestly how segregated one’s life is, regardless of politics, then the answer is probably apparent. Probably. For all of us there is always the self-idea that makes you want to deny, or run from, even what is obvious. To deny that you’re actually not a reliable narrator.
In the 60s of course there were all of these student protest movements, trying to bring the idea of the civil rights movement into the academy. We want more black literature in the English Department, the primacy of slavery in American history needs to be front and center, the fulcrum of race in politics and media can’t be ignored, etc. But the English Department and History Department and Political Science and Media Studies all resisted for an inordinately long time.
But you still have to mollify the students, so they created these African studies departments and set them off to the side, but race is all around the sciences, all around literature, all around histories, usually in the form of erasure. They kept the preexisting subject matter segregated in ways that we continue to experience, and that continue to produce educated citizens who can read something like White Fragility and claim to experience an epiphany.
The other manufacturing component of this critical establishment is commercial publishing and the mainstream reviewing industry, both of which, we know, are overwhelmingly white. So these are the critical minds and consumers who propel a book like White Fragility to success, and who dictate the popular literary conversation about race.
Then you push through that layer of defense and there’s this rush to acknowledge their fragility and the mechanisms that produce it—while we still haven’t done a great deal about policing, about prisons, about the housing crisis, the wealth disparity, the outrageous and current voter suppression. Black America has been wise to this for a long time, so taking liberals with a grain of salt is as old as the abolitionist movement.
We should focus objectively on deconstructing colonial structures. The primary form this structure takes, across all areas, cultural or economic, is segregation. The cure for segregation is integration.
RB: You argue in your book that the kinds of changes we saw in the period between 1965 and the early 1980’s were promising, but that “the rate of change has stalled dramatically.” Virtually all of the factors and explanations you provide seem to me persuasive. Terms like wage gap, education gap and others point to issues you cogently address. And yet you know that, in spite of your sense that the rate of change has stalled, a good many leading black sociologists and intellectuals contend that there has been steady—though surely inadequate—change for the better in recent decades. In fact, the term “Afro-pessimism” has frequently cropped up in articles and debates in which black writers dispute the narrative offered in the work of writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who contend that in the area of race relations things are not much better now than they were two or three generations ago.
Would you speak to the term “Afro-pessimism” ? Does it usefully designate something worth thinking about? Where would you place your own book within the spectrum of views at issue in the debate over “Afro-pessimism”?
CB: If I read things correctly, Afro pessimists take a dim view of the prospects for change in a country in which you must rely to a large degree on the awareness of your white allies too many of whom are worried about their own fragility, or hemming and hawing about how to be a good ally. I imagine by rolling up your sleeves and getting down to the real work all this entails. These are the twin facts of being black in this country. Pessimism in the sense I think we’re talking about is simply lack of imagination. I’m fascinated by the stuff that says: you have to go forth and make a way where none is possible. Even in the Book of Genesis that’s where life begins. That’s the heroic in the human.
RB: One of the most powerful passages in your book reads as follows: “Every attempt to assert the validity of race, whether by the most duplicitous white supremacist or vehement black nationalist, is a deep lie.” Why is this so? Because, you declare, “there is no such thing as race in this world.”
Is what you say in this passage more or less understood and agreed upon by most of the colleagues and students you encounter at the colleges and universities where you have taught in recent years? Is the logic, the implication inherent in what you say more or less understood as well? Would you be willing to formulate that logic, to perhaps set out the essential implications you would have your students take to heart?
CB: This is biology, and common sense. The consensus among leading scientists is that there is phenotypical difference, but not much beneath that. Some of these variations matter, of course, for example in how you treat disease, or the diversity of the participants in a clinical trial. The statement—there’s no such thing as race—is a gloss, faithful to science but reduced in a way that a group of biologists might unpack among themselves in interesting ways, but that will send most lay persons down whatever their preexisting pathways happen to be. The point, for all practical purposes, is that race is, in most ways, a scientific red herring, but a social fact.
In terms of teaching, I should first acknowledge how lucky I am to be employed, because I think the way people learn to read—what one happens to like, find relevant, “relate to” or even “learn from”— is deeply problematic. I also think the way creative writing is taught—the American workshop model of “craft,” and “writing what you know”— is reductive and limiting. All of this permeates American literary culture, so if one happens to believe there’s something wrong with the way everyone goes about a thing, it’s unwise to betray too much of what one really thinks.
I was always deeply ambivalent about teaching, until three or four years ago when I fundamentally changed my approach to focus more on creative thinking, and its preconditions, and less on technical skills, which is a very American approach, and has produced the same problems as much of the rest of America’s love affair with technology. I decided I would introduce students to the concepts and practices I thought were missing, and if that didn’t work I’d go find aanother job and eventually figure out how to solve the writer’s perennial problem of time.
I happened to have had a wonderfully talented MFA student at Columbia that year, who was trying to figure out how to use some of the more sophisticated postmodern techniques to tell a story about class and gender in Latin America. I also had a class of bright undergraduates at Yale, most of whom were working on serious political critiques of American society and its structures of race and gender. The problem with their critiques was that they were replacing one framework lacking in self-awareness for others, in which their own identities were paramount, though the underlying intellectual and ontological issues were the same. I was sympathetic to their particular problems, though, and what I heard in all of their performances of “wokeness” was the question: can you help teach us to produce a better culture than the one in which we were born?
I’m fairly certain that’s what they were asking, but even if it wasn’t it was the thing I heard, and it invigorated me as a teacher in a way that had little to do with simply inculcating belief systems, or teaching students how to use technologies divorced from meaning. The key for me turned out to be something TS Eliot wrote: “Consciousness of history cannot be fully awake, except where there is other history than the history of the poet’s own people: we need this in order to see our own place in history.”
The statement has its problems, we know, but it resonated with Virginia Woolf’s On Craftsmanship lecture, which I’ve started giving my students on the first day of a workshop. Woolf asks: “How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth?”
This is the old tradition, of course, but I don’t at all mind foregrounding these larger questions of truth, beauty, canon formation, and the ways prior generations of writers have related to the past. Then we go back through the history of the novel. We look at the emergence of Realism, its various strengths and weaknesses; the ways it was used by writers and the surrounding society. We then go to modernism, and how that came about; and postmodernism and what that put on the table, along with other theoretical frameworks. At least as important for me is how some other cultures have thought about all of this, and the various schools or tendencies in the culture immediately before our own, asking how all of these forces led to our own door. In the end we’re perhaps equipped to think about how one might extricate oneself, but by then all of the relevant questions are more complex and richer than they could possibly have been if all we did was talk about setting, characterization and technique.
As I said, all of this started because I had some good students, and I was invested in them having more sophisticated tools to think and write themselves forward. I was also lucky that we had a high degree of trust in one another, and I had enough institutional support to challenge them intellectually or creatively.
This made teaching interesting to me again, because the way I thought at 20 isn’t the way I think now, and wherever my students are as thinkers or creators will hopefully continue to evolve. Story is the simplest part of fiction. But what are we doing with these narratives and why? That’s what’s really at stake. The answer is hopefully more nuanced than my ambition or personal preferences. If not that’s fine, I suppose, but we’re not going to walk around anymore with these naïve claims about what we know, or in a culture narrowly concerned only with itself. If you tell me, as so many smart students do, that the art that came before us has failed, well that’s a wonderful point of embarkation, but if we’re serious we have to ask: and what next?
So part of my joy right now is helping train the next generation of thinkers and writers. Of course only five or ten people will actually ask me for that kind of help. But I trust those enough to think it’s the right way forward.
RB: A very final, question, which I hope you’ll like. Lately I was reading around in Michael Gorra’s big new book on Faulkner, and later talking about it with a student who asked me why Faulkner wasn’t on the syllabus for a course she was taking on the American novel. I told her that I didn’t want to speculate about someone else’s syllabus, but that got me to thinking, of course, about you, and your book. The headnote to the fourth chapter of your book is a quotation from Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! As you know, many of us have been teaching Faulkner in our classes for a long time. I’ve done so for decades, alert to the fact that Faulkner’s views of race were not always compatible with my own, but feeling that at his best Faulkner is a very great writer and that, in the appropriate courses, I should be teaching Faulkner. I love The Sound and the Fury, and the great stories. And I think my students deserve to encounter him. Without apology or condescension. Of course you know as well as I do that some people don’t feel that way about Faulkner, don’t believe that a writer whose novels and stories contain “offensive” language—some of Faulkner’s characters do say, and repeat, disgusting things—should be introduced to students or discussed in classes, not even in graduate seminars. Complicated, to be sure, as all such questions are bound to be, especially in the case of a very complicated writer like Faulkner, whose view of race matters—as Gorra nicely reminds us in his book—is consistently more impressive in his books than in accounts of his table talk.
But let me put my final question to you in a very compact way: If you were teaching a course in 20th century American fiction, would you be comfortable—I know that you hate the word “comfortable” about as much as I do—: would you be comfortable teaching Faulkner to your students?
CB: I happen to teach Faulkner to students every semester. Year after year. I’m reminded of a question put to me recently by a writing student, who wondered whether I thought much about making potential white readers of my book feel uncomfortable because of things I would say. And of course I replied that I would write what I had to write, and that the reader, well, that would be up to the reader. Look: Faulkner makes me uncomfortable! But he’s on my short list of the best writers in American history, and in particular Absalom, Absalom! is a very great book. Faulkner was a man of his time. And place. And really I can’t police that, mustn’t even try to police that. This may be an old school view, Bob, but you know, you can’t change the past. You can hope to write a new future. And so when I teach Faulkner, I try to say, “This is an example. This is how you use language to make your world. Use these tools for yourself, and go make your own world.”