Monthly Archives: January 2014

Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, 21st Century American literature and US decline

The young of DeLisle are hunted: this is the frightening message of Jesmyn Ward’s new memoir, Men We Reaped. Ward’s book is essential reading for anybody who wants to get to grips with the new America that is emerging in the twenty-first century, one whose predatory, survival of the fittest environment seems to have lost its redemptive gloss in the age of the so-called war on terror and the mass incarceration of its citizens. Ward’s memoir tells the story of the victims of the hollowed out security state, abandoned to the logic of the market, systemic racism and a nation whose inexorable decline is signalled by the fact that it has lost its vision of the future.

In the first few pages we are told that DeLisle, a small town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, was named ‘Wolf Town’ by early settlers. ‘When people ask about my hometown, I tell them it was called after a wolf before it was partially tamed and settled. I want to impart something of its wild roots, its early savagery’. Ward’s subsequent book is a journey into the heart of this savagery, a world of shrinking opportunities and soul-destroying poverty. It tells the story of five young black men nurtured and stalked by the wolf – DeLisle is an ambivalent place, loving as well as crushing – who died between 2000 and 2004. These are Ward’s friends, her cousin, and, at the book’s heart, her brother. The memoir is her attempt to make sense of the enormity of her loss, to pay tribute to the hunted and begin the search for the ‘thing’ – or, as the book suggests, the ‘nothing’ – that is out there, waiting.

The structure of the book peels back various layers of contemporary history to reveal something of why these young men, as Ward put it to me in an interview, had ‘slipped through the cracks’, why they ‘had really pessimistic, fatalistic ideas about what their lives would consist of, and about their futures.’ And, ultimately, why their fatalism was horrifyingly prophetic: why they were allowed to die.

American literary endeavours that have wanted to highlight a nation that has lost its way is no new thing: this literary landscape is full of prophetic voices – ‘jeremiads’ as they have come to be known in American studies – that have wanted to illustrate the gap between the American dream and the American reality. African American voices have played a very particular role in this project, so often positioned as whistleblowers in relation to the national myth. Witnesses not to a unique experiment in freedom, as the United States was imagined by its founders, but rather to the consequences of slavery, imperialism, state-sponsored terrorism, enduring racialized poverty.

And yet this narrative in the twentieth century has not been bereft of a redemptive horizon. The idea of ‘America’, the dream of a meritocratic society where the conditions of your birth need not determine your destiny, sustains the prophetic economy of the jeremiad, even in the work of a writer like Toni Morrison who has been so instrumental in reminding contemporary America of the horrors of slavery and its afterlife. Jesmyn Ward’s book signals a new departure in this context, whereby hopes for redemption give way to a theme for a less idealistic, more pragmatic age: survival. ‘We are savage’, the closing lines of the book read.

This is the age of government roll-back and privatization, a neoliberal age that invests in short-term gains for the very few at the expense of a future for all. As Angela Davis told a crowd at Tulane University in New Orleans in November, this is the age of the prison-industrial complex that warehouses human beings: ‘today, there are more black men in prison, and under the direct control of a criminal justice agency, than there were enslaved in this country in 1850.’ The hunted eyes of the young men Ward follows are the products of this miserable system: they have no vision of the future. ‘This isn’t some exceptional thing that is only happening to us’, Ward explains, ‘this is happening to communities around the United States.’

These disturbing visions of what some have named the ‘living dead’ are arguably a new apparition in twenty-first century US narrative: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012), to take just two examples, are similarly populated by these broken human beings that suggest that the nation’s ghosts have finally caught up with it. These materialized ghosts point to the end of the so-called ‘American Century’ – that moment of post-war optimism which briefly envisaged rising living standards for all – and the terminus of the dream of endless progress. They tell of the decline of a nation that, in contrast to Old Europe, has long defined itself by the future.

Ward’s book represents a new trend in US writing which suggests that the triumphal American moment is now over. African American voices and bodies still carry the burden of this realism, but Ward’s text strongly resists the long-held idea, one still floating in the age of Obama, that they might also be the nation’s redemption. This potentially complex idea was frequently expressed by Martin Luther King, and too easily adopted by white liberals as a salve to their consciences.

Men We Reaped offers no such consolation. It tells the story of a very particular place and community, of crushing racism and poverty. But those lucky enough to remain untouched by such pressures should not kid ourselves: we should all feel hunted by the thing that stalks the young of DeLisle.


Gone With the Wind in London

Plantations between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, 1858

Plantations between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, 1858

‘London’s a horrible place,’ Bonnie exclaims to her mother, Scarlett – on return to the family home in Atlanta – and to an amused London audience. There was something almost ritualistic about this viewing of Gone With the Wind at the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank. As my sister murmured to me about thirty minutes in to this 4-hour epic, it was clear that like us, many in the audience knew all of the words. But what does this romanticization of the Old South, this apologia for slavery, have to say to a twenty-first century London audience? What had made us all give up such a large chunk of our time-poor worlds to watch a film that most of us had clearly watched many times before?

According to a British Film Institute report in 2004, Gone With the Wind, first released in 1939, is the most popular film of all time at British cinemas (according to this 2008 poll, Margaret Mitchell’s novel, which is much more overtly mired in the South’s racist politics, is in the US second only to the bible in popularity). These are discomforting statistics given the film’s indefensible sub-text. As we clumsily tried to convey to one of my sister’s friends, who we bumped into just before the start of the film – who happens to be mixed race, was watching the film for the first time, and who had come out for an ostensibly cosy evening of viewing with her mother – there are some tricky aspects to this film.

‘Yes it’s really racist’, she responded uncertainly, ‘but you have to overlook this, right?’ My sister shifted awkwardly. No. But. But what is this but? How could we defend the embarrassing fact that this film has been one of our favourites since childhood? An attachment formed long before I envisioned myself as an academic with interests in African American literature, culture and politics, invested in the idea that an awareness of the horrors of the slave past is crucial to addressing contemporary manifestations of systemic racism in the US and elsewhere.

This was one of my first evenings out since returning from New Orleans, and a strange welcome home given that one of the few things I was eager to leave behind in that city was the ever-present sense that the racial past is endlessly repeating itself, mutating into new iterations of inequality, power and control. Yes, twenty-first century Britain is far from colour-blind, but … other forms of wilful blindness are clearly in operation. Perhaps certain aspects of London are not so far away from Louisiana after all.

Part of my research this autumn involved visiting some of Louisiana’s many plantations. In New Orleans’ French Quarter you are inundated with tourist literature that invites you to step back into the hazy world of the antebellum plantation. Plantation tours draw huge numbers of tourists in this region. They can vary in tone. Laura Plantation – which stresses its ‘Creole’ identity – is proud of its ‘realistic’ approach to history, which includes in its celebration of the ancestral home a brief visit to the slave cabins. This was a business, is the message, and French slavery wasn’t quite as vicious as the Anglo variety that followed. Oak Alley Plantation is possibly more typical in that its female guides are decked out in period costume, and visitors are encouraged to sip a Mint Julep on the veranda in order to re-create that ambience of southern leisure.

View from the balcony at Oak Alley Plantation

View from the balcony at Oak Alley Plantation

At this point it is impossible to avoid the obvious fact that we are being invited to identify quite directly with the white slave masters and mistresses. Not that they are being identified as such. Since my first visit to Oak Alley in 2011 things have changed slightly. There now appears on the front of the house a list of its various possessions and their estimated worth, and this includes an extensive list of human beings. Where on my first tour here, I had to ask the guide where the slave cabins would have been located, this time we were directed to a new exhibition that seeks to re-create, in a decidedly un-nostalgic register, various aspects of the slave experience. The new exhibit is not part of the standard tour but, as our excellent guide – who was not afraid to go off script – noted, it is long over-due.

And yet the script remains: at the start of the tour we are told that the owners, Jacques and Selena, acquired the plantation ‘along with 57 slaves, and they began to build their dream home’ (in 2011 this buried reference was the only official nod to slavery). The families who lived here are humanized through various anecdotes – some of which reveal, we are told, a ‘tragic history’ – but they come most fully alive in the context of their object world. It is the origins of the lace trimmings on the bed covers, the style of dining chairs, the architectural tricks that kept them cool in summer, the quaint ornaments on the mantelpieces, that we are invited to dwell on. Never mind the fact that these families imagined those labouring outside, where unimagined and unspeakable tragedies were undoubtedly unfolding, as part of their object world, their long list of possessions. These families are human beings because they owned things, they are consumers. 

This unhappy fact does not fit nicely with twenty-first century idealizations of consumerism (which routinely turn a blind eye to the deeply exploitative labour conditions – that often amount to modern forms of slavery – that make much mass consumption possible). These tours, I realized on my most recent trip, are designed primarily to appeal to and feed our obsession with owning, designing and furnishing our homes. The creation of such atomized worlds is a process of sealing ourselves off against society’s less comforting aspects, and indeed society itself. In order to enjoy these tours, we must repress our knowledge of the gothic potential of the house – which might come to feel more like a prison than a home, especially in Louisiana.

And it is this gesture to twenty-first century consumer habits that for me partially unlocks the continued appeal of Gone With the Wind. Crucial to any contemporary reading of this film’s pernicious fairytale is its depiction of ‘happy slaves’ and their gentle masters. This is a world of ‘chivalry and honour’, where members of the terrorist organization the Ku Klux Klan are presented as gentlemen defending an embattled ‘way of life’. As with most instances of southern nostalgia, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that this ‘way of life’, this romanticized myth of the confederate ‘Lost Cause’, ultimately boils down to the right to own slaves. And yet as Margaret Mitchell insisted, this world is ‘gone with the wind’; instead, and at the centre of our screens, I would argue, is a vision of the future.

There are few scenes in which Scarlett O’Hara is not at least visually present if not central to the action. (I can only recall one, when Ashley and Melanie overlook Twelve Oaks from a balcony, immediately prior to secession and war). Scarlett is typically described as a ‘southern belle’, and yet her fate is quite the opposite to that of Blanche DuBois, the fading belle at the centre of A Streetcar Named Desire, again played by Vivien Leigh in the famous film production in the twilight years of her own career. The character that animates Tennessee Williams’ play is an embodiment of the dying fantasy of the Old South that must give way to a new world represented by the brash and brutal qualities of Stanley (Marlon Brando). In Gone With the Wind it is Scarlett herself who adapts – more successfully than any other character – to the changing dynamics of a new southern order engendered by the industrialized North. As Scarlett insists to scandalized onlookers: ‘I’m going to make friends with the Yankees and beat them at their own game.’

‘You are no gentleman’ Scarlett indignantly tells Rhett early in the film. ‘And you are no lady’ is his immediate reply. This theme is constantly reiterated as the two independently and then together accumulate wealth – wealth initially condemned by Mammy as ‘not quality’. As Rhett tells Scarlett, ‘you and I are alike, selfish and shrewd to the end, but able to look things in their eyes and call them by their right name.’ Scarlett and Rhett are realists and survivors, constituting not only the centre of the film’s romance but the focus of audience identification. It’s not that we should deny the deeply disturbing fact that the film presents a clear justification for slavery – portrayed as a kind of ‘civilizing’ institution in contrast to the northern alternative. But we also need to note the significance of this alternative: despite the film’s captivating depiction of Scarlett, within its discourse she comes to represent a less ‘civilized’ order, one that is perhaps closer to our own.

Scarlett in particular is a seductive character because she is not only strikingly beautiful (as played by Leigh) but outrageous and says things we might not dare to say. Her character comes to be built on the lesson that ‘money is the most important thing in the world and I don’t intend ever to be without it again’. Scarlett is not at all squeamish about the pain and suffering on which her own fortune comes to be built. Where the sentimental Ashley insists that his own father treated his slaves kindly, and that he himself would have happily freed them all when his father died, Scarlett insists on relying on the labour of convicts to work her mill, giving the overseer ‘a free hand’ to discipline them as he likes. For Ashley, this is much worse than the slave labour deployed in his father’s day; for Scarlett it is the same.

Though the film itself supports Ashley’s view – the antebellum South had been a world of honour and kindness, in which happy slaves lovingly worked the plantation – as viewers we are nonetheless positioned to identify with Scarlett’s ‘realism’. And we should blush in doing so. Contemporary audiences are obliged to see beyond the binary that says slavery was part of an agrarian, pre-capitalist order, for better or for worse, and instead recognize the continuities between the slave system and its capitalist heir. Scarlett’s practice of exploiting the labour of prison inmates continues into our contemporary late capitalist world. Indeed, the growing practice of prison tourism is an uncanny echo of plantation tourism, not least because some prisons in the South are built on the sites of former plantations.

Gone With the Wind presents us with false alternatives, a sepia-toned past and a brashly ‘realistic’ present, the one that we can’t believe in and the other that we invest in at our peril. Because we know the slave past depicted is a fantasy, the film enables us to adopt a similar frame for Scarlett, our vision of the capitalist future. The film’s fantasy mode enables us to compartmentalize our various reactions – we can love the Scarlett who wants to show off to her snooty neighbours by owning and lavishly adorning her superior home, while turning a blind – or, worse, an overly indulgent – eye to the hard-headed business woman who deploys what amounts to slave labour. While the film duplicitously depicts Ashley’s horror at this exercise in exploitation, it shows Scarlett’s lack of scruples as part of her overall frivolity. She’s outrageous isn’t she?

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave offers a powerful corrective to this fantasy. Given that showings in the UK almost coincided with the re-release of Gone With the Wind, one wonders if it shouldn’t have been offered to audiences as a double bill. Where David O. Selznicks blockbuster represents one of the most outrageous whitewashings of slave history, 12 Years A Slave arguably goes further than any other major film to date to look the horrors of slavery fully in the eye.

Glimpses of slave cabins at the Laura Plantation

Glimpses of slave cabins at the Laura Plantation

The slave-owning households in McQueen’s film are gothic without even trying to be. What the film so powerfully shows is the complete corruption of the slave-holding class by the institution from which they egregiously profit and which determines their social world. We are perhaps somewhat prepared for the depiction of the sadistic slave master but less for his female accomplice, whose own oppression in this patriarchal system often manifested itself in a malicious need to take revenge on the slaves themselves; particularly slave women who seemed to present as sexual rivals. Even the wife of the gentler slave master, Ford, dishes out a very cruel ‘comfort’ to the distraught Eliza, who has just undergone the unthinkable experience of being separated from her young children: ‘Your children will soon be forgotten.’ These ‘dream homes’ conceal nightmarish worlds that admit the humanity of nobody.

The centre of identification in 12 Years a Slave without question falls squarely on the film’s central protagonist, Solomon Northup, whose identity as a freedman is stolen in New Orleans where he is symbolically re-named ‘Platt’. The power of this story for contemporary audiences lies in the fact that it opens with the representation of a free man. None of us were born into slavery in the sense that American slaves were, but we can all imagine ourselves subject to a case of mistaken identity, whereby we are kidnapped into an unthinkably awful and exploitative scenario, as is the case for Solomon. Unlike the subjects of most slave narratives, Solomon begins his story as an educated, skilled man leading a middle class existence. Indeed, in an opening scene we find Solomon and his family in a shop – clearly enjoying the prospect of making purchases, if Solomon seems a little anxious about price where his wife does not. This free black family are thus explicitly identified as consumers.

At this point in the film another black man, clearly under some kind of condition of servitude if not slavery, enters the shop – seemingly transfixed by the image of black freedom that Solomon and his family appear to embody. His keeper soon follows, interrupting the shopkeeper’s assumption that this black man is a potential customer, and apologising for the ‘intrusion’. ‘No intrusion’, responds Solomon, though without looking this other black man in the eye. It is an interesting moment in the film, not least because it punctures the rather rosy image of life in the North for this free black family; an image contradicted by so many slave narrators who routinely note their disappointment on discovery of the fact that the North is not some utopian land of the free but rather characterized by a racism with which we are now all too familiar. This moment highlights the precarious nature of the Northup family’s free existence, which itself relies on a hermetically sealed, fantasmatic bubble. Solomon might wish to defend this enslaved man but at this stage in the film, he decidedly does not identify with him. Solomon is a consumer where this other man is an object of consumption. The difference between them constitutes Solomon’s sense of his own humanity.

And yet Solomon’s status as a free black person relies on a slippery legal category, one that is contradicted by southern mores so only really functions in the North – an exception within a system that on a national level recognizes the legality of slavery for the vast majority of black people. It is the unfeasibility of this position, in practical and moral terms, that by the end of the story transforms Northup into an abolitionist. As the film’s action begins to unfold Northup’s initial outrage is at the fact that he – a free man – has been falsely made over into a slave. By the end of the film the outrage no longer circulates around this specific, individual predicament, but rather is focused on the institution of slavery itself. Those painful moments in between see Solomon slowly moving to identify with other slaves, a process that punctures his initially firm belief that his educated, middle class and free identity somehow separates him from this unfortunate group of people. One poignant moment on the swampy Louisiana plantation – a stunningly beautiful location, which makes its role as backdrop for unspeakable scenes of cruelty and violence particularly striking – shows Solomon initially half-heartedly articulating the words to a slave song about redemption, and singing at the top of his voice by the end of the scene.

When Solomon is returned to the safety of the family home in the North we feel a palpable sense of relief. This scene is itself painful. Solomon’s wife’s reticence to physically embrace him contrasts sharply with the scenes of farewell with Patsy. His need to ask his family forgiveness seems to trace a return to a middle class consciousness: he is asking forgiveness for his condition, for the fact that he has lived as a slave. But this quiet and awkward family reunion is also deeply moving, gesturing towards the ‘unspeakable happiness’ Solomon imagined when he asked Bass to send the letter that would ultimately deliver him into freedom. Solomon has escaped, and so have we.

But have we? The film’s action does not include Northup’s subsequent politicization, but this move is summarized prior to the closing credits. In the terms established by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), it is as if Solomon’s experience has engendered the discovery of the veil of race, one that he floated above in earlier years only because of a wilful blindness, a fantasy that secured him and his family in the safety of an atomized, middle class existence. Where identification with Scarlett O’Hara – as an individualist, a selfish, egotistical consumer – is a guilty pleasure, one that seems to be thoroughly complicit with twenty-first century capitalist subjectivities, identification with Solomon by the end makes you feel unworthy. His leap (from empathy to politics) is not ours – or only in the fantasy space of the cinema.

Due to a mix-up with our babysitter I managed to miss 12 Years A Slave while I was in New Orleans, and didn’t get to see it until after my troubling yet enjoyable viewing of Gone With the Wind. Initially I was disappointed not to see McQueen’s film in what felt like the more appropriate setting, but now I’m not so sure. The New Orleans setting might have enabled me to more thoroughly compartmentalize its implications, geographically if not temporally. But a city built on the wealth created by the slave trade, intoxicated by consumerism and speculation, polluted by vast amounts of money controlled by the very rich at the expense of the rest of society, is perhaps quite an appropriate location after all. In this sense, Bonnie is right, ‘London’s a horrible place.’