There’s an article making the rounds on the internet that’s become quite popular among a certain sort of feminist. “Why Hasn’t Anyone Tried This Before?” by Marie De Santis, executive director of the Women’s Justice Center in Santa Rosa, California, claims that within a span of five years, Sweden has reduced street prostitution by 65% and that “sex-trafficking” of immigrant women has ceased.
Swedish feminists accomplished this “miraculous” abolition of “male violence … [and] the exploitation of women and children” by convincing legislators to look at prostitution from a “female” point of view (47.3% of the Riksdagen, the Swedish parliament, are women). The female POV holds that no woman wants to be a sex worker and that every woman working in the sex industry is coerced into it. By this logic, men are the criminals: they are sexually violent and should be punished for paying for sex; women are victims who need re-education and opportunities to hold safe and respectable jobs. According to De Santis, this is an idea “so firmly anchored in common sense” that it’s a wonder not every country has similar laws.
Sometimes with a book, you don’t hold onto passages or plot lines but rather places. And not even the places where you read the book or the places in the book, but other places. Places that somehow feel more true to the book than anything else.
For example, if someone asks me, “What do you remember about first reading Stone Butch Blues?” I am not able to answer with absolute honesty. I will want to say, “The conference room, I remember the conference room,” but then the other person will think I read Leslie Feinberg’s groundbreaking 1993 novel in a conference room, and that’s not what I mean. So, I don’t say it but the conference room is the first place that comes to mind when I think about Stone Butch Blues.
To continue our remembrance of Leslie Feinberg, who passed away earlier this week, we put together a short list of recommended books—essential reading by some of the most unique and beloved voices from the transgender community, including Les hirself, to help to raise awareness of transgender issues and perspectives.
Those who were fortunate enough to hear Leslie Feinberg speak in person know how powerful and inspiring s/he was. Trans Liberation gathers a collection of Feinberg’s speeches on trans liberation and its essential connection to the liberation of all people. This wonderfully immediate, impassioned, and stirring book is for anyone who cares about civil rights and creating a just and equitable society.
Transgender Warriorsis a fascinating, personal journey through history. Leslie Feinberg uncovers persuasive evidence that there have always been people who crossed the cultural boundaries of gender. This is is an eye-opening jaunt through the history of gender expression and a powerful testament to the rebellious spirit.
We were shocked and saddened by the news that Leslie Feinberg, author and pioneering advocate for trans liberation, died this weekend from “complications from multiple tick-borne co-infections.” Feinberg was the author of two books from Beacon—Trans Liberation and Transgender Warriors—and is best known for the underground classic Stone Butch Blues. A tireless and impassioned activist for all human rights, Feinberg campaigned extensively for AIDS awareness, racial and social equality, and pro-labor causes, as well as for “trans liberation,” a term s/he coined to align the struggle for transgender rights in the continuum of other human rights struggles. As Feinberg said in a speech given at the 1997 True Spirit Conference in Laurel, Maryland, “None of us can ever be free while others are still in chains.... Trans liberation is inextricably linked to other movements for equality and justice.”
That speech is collected in Feinberg’s 1999 book, Trans Liberation, which is the last book Feinberg published with Beacon Press. We wanted to remember the remarkable energy, intellect, and spirit of Leslie Feinberg—whose last words reportedly were: “Remember me as a revolutionary communist”—by reprinting an excerpt from a different speech, also collected in that volume. It was given at the 9th Annual Texas “T” (Transgender) Party in Richardson, Texas, but Feinberg could have been talking to all of us. As one local bookstore appropriately put it, “Rest in power, Leslie Feinberg.”
Center City gay-bashing suspects (courtesy Philadelphia Police)
On September 11, 2014, around 11pm, a gay male couple walking home through Philadelphia’s fashionable Center City was accosted and badly beaten by a group of 12 well-dressed white 20-somethings, both men and women, who shouted anti-gay epithets before and during the attack. Both victims ended up in the hospital, one of them beaten so badly he suffered broken bones in his face and had to have his jaw wired shut. The case has attracted a lot of attention both because the alleged perpetrators were so clean-cut and apparently well-to-do and included women and men—not the stereotype of who commits “hate crimes”—and for the way it was solved: via social media. After the police released street-side surveillance video showing a group of young people walking away from the crime scene, citizens of the twitter universe began circulating the videos, matching faces to Facebook updates, and eventually pointing the police to suspects. Three arrests have since been made of two men and one woman, Philip Williams, Kevin Harrigan, and Kathryn Knott, each of whom has been charged with two counts of Aggravated Assault, two counts of Simple Assault, two counts of Recklessly Endangering Another Person, and one count of Criminal Conspiracy.
In her lyrical, coming-of-age memoir A Cup of Water Under My Bed—a heartfelt exploration of family, identity, and language now available from Beacon Press—Daisy Hernández chronicles what the women in her Cuban-Colombian family taught her about love, money, and race. Nicholas DiSabatino, publicity assistant at Beacon, recently spoke with Hernández about her new book, her literary and cultural influences, and the process of finding herself, both within her immigrant community and within the new, queer life she created for herself.
I was watching Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from 1979 recently, a hilarious rewriting of the life and death of Christ, and I realized how outrageous most of the jokes from the film would seem today. In fact, the film, with its religious satire and scenes of Christ and the thieves singing on the cross, would never make it into cinemas now. The Life of Brian was certainly received as controversial in its own day but when censors tried to repress the film in several different countries, the Monty Python crew used their florid sense of humor to their advantage. So, when the film was banned in a few places, they gave it a tagline of: “So funny it was banned in Norway!”
Humor, in fact, in general, depends upon the unexpected (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”); repetition to the point of hilarity (“You can have eggs, bacon, and spam; spam, eggs, spam, and sausage; or spam, spam, spam, and spam!”); silliness, non-sequitors, caricature, and an anarchic blend of the serious and the satirical. And humor is something that feminists in particular, but radical politics in general, are accused of lacking. Recent controversies within queer communities around language, slang, satirical or ironic representation, and perceptions of harm or offensiveness have created much controversy with very little humor recently, leading to demands for bans, censorship, and name changes.
Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini, and Michael Amico came to Boston last fall to read from their new book, “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People. The book confronts some of the most common myths and misunderstandings about LGBT life and people. Myths, such as “All Religions Condemn Homosexuality” and “Transgender People Are Mentally Ill,” have been used to justify discrimination and oppression of LGBT people. Others, such as “Homosexuals Are Born That Way,” have been embraced by LGBT communities and their allies. In discussing and dispelling these myths—including gay-positive ones—the authors challenge readers to question their own beliefs and to grapple with the complexities of what it means to be queer in the broadest social, political, and cultural sense.
While waiting for the event to start, we had the opportunity to ask the authors about some key myths affecting the cultural landscape of LGBT people, and about LGBT parents in particular, a demographic sure to rise given marriage equality’s gaining acceptance. As the authors say in the book, “The often bitter debate that swirls around LGBT families cloaks the larger discussion: how do we all create a culture that nurtures all children, in all kinds of families, to grow into happy, loving, successful adults?...Until we create new ways for parents and children to live healthily together, neither will grow and thrive, especially as families.”
J. D. McClatchy, Ben Klein, Stephen S. Mills, Essex Hemphill, and Adrienne Rich
I often feel that poetry gets the short end of the stick when celebrating LGBT literature. There are so many rich options that it can often be overwhelming to know where to begin. My first real brush with LGBT poetry was the Everyman’s Library Pocket Series anthology Love Speaks Its Name: Gay and Lesbian Love Poems, which gave me an introductory and historical look at the challenges and loves of LGBT poets within the last century. While thinking about books to recommend in honor of Pride this June, I wanted to offer some classic choices alongside brand new ones that might someday be part of the canon of celebrated LGBT poetry. These collections offer everything from lusty hookups to images of domestic bliss with a long-term partner to frustrations over the current state of LGBT rights. There’s even an image of gay icon “Little” Edie Beale of Grey Gardens. I hope you enjoy.
Michael Shelton wrote Family Pride: What LGBT Families Should Know about Navigating Home, School, and Safety in Their Neighborhoodsas a resource for queer parents, their families, and allies that emphasizes community safety. While the national focus remains on the mistreatment of LGBT people in schools, the reality is that LGBT families also face hostility in various settings—professional, recreational, and social. Drawing on his years as a dedicated community activist and on the experiences of LGBT parents, Shelton put together a few concrete strategies culled from his book that LGBT families can use to intervene in and resolve difficult community issues, teach their children resiliency skills, and find safe and respectful programs for them.
Growing up queer and a heavy reader, I can’t help but envy today’s teens the ever-growing number of books written for their demographic that feature central LGBT characters and themes. When I delve into these titles, I devour them. I read them gluttonously, vicariously re-imagining the trajectory of my own coming-of-age had these characters and their voices been available to me at the time. Because of this, I can—unlike some—fault no one for avidly reading young adult literature on into adulthood. It’s uplifting to see that not only does “it get better” as you grow up, but the very process of growing up seems to be getting better, too. Young readers have more role models and better access than ever to proof that they are not alone, and that’s a wonderful thing.
So for June, for Pride Month, I’ve put together a short list of reading recommendations for LGBT youth, or those seeking some literary insight into their experience.
We in Massachusetts have had an illustrious history of progressiveness, justice, and pride. It was the first individual state to write a constitution declaring universal rights; Horace Mann led education reform here; we have the Kennedys and the Red Sox and Emily Dickinson. And we were the first state, ten years ago last month, to legalize same-sex marriage.
This is the real reason I am proud to be from Massachusetts. Same-sex marriage is now legal in sixteen countries and nineteen US states, including all of New England. National support for marriage equality is at 59%, an all-time high. And we helped elect a president who vocally endorses same-sex marriage. It might be bold to say, but from the looks of it, our progressiveness and acceptance are making international rounds.
In November of 2003, when a Massachusetts court declared the ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional in that state, Catherine Reid was left with an unexpected choice: to get married, or not. As the ten year anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts approaches, Reid, in this excerpt fromFalling Into Place, takes us back to those heady early days of victory and apprehension after the first marriage licenses could be issued to same-sex partners.
We have sixty days to take action before the marriage certificate expires, less than thirty before our blood tests will no longer be valid. We still have time to change our minds, and we consider backing out often, though now that we’ve agreed to do this with two other couples, we’ll be considered traitors if we develop a case of cold feet. Besides, my short list of excuses—how to deal with the bizarre notion of “wife,” or the difficulty in telling my ninety-nine-year-old grandmother, or the support this lends to the institution of the privileged—can’t compare with the number of reasons to go through with this, which became longer with an unexpected Sunday-night phone call.
“As a father of two children,” the automated voice begins, “I am horrified at the changes about to take place in our country.” Despite my own horror, I don’t hang up; I want a phone number, I want to register protest. “We urge you to support Article 8,” the voice insists, describing a bill that will empower the legislature to repeal “activist judges” and prevent married homosexuals from tainting our nation’s moral character.
On February 20th of 1980, I was pushing through the most gruesome of training sessions, running—really racing—stairs (nine flights per set, six to ten sets per session) in hot pursuit of my dream: a berth on the U.S. Rowing team scheduled to compete in at the Moscow Olympics in five months. As I reached the top landing, gasping for breath, I huffed to my workout companion, Sally Fisher, “Why are we doing this? Today is Carter’s deadline: the boycott’s official.” Sally shrugged, “I know. But we have two more sets,” and started back down the stairs. Of course I had to keep up. Politics or not, I had a workout to finish.
Those stairs made me strong, and my dream came true, committed beyond reason as I was to that outcome, driven by my passion for rowing—the feel of a fast boat skimming across water, the belief that I could move a slender racing shell faster than anyone else, and the longing to represent my country honorably at the incomparable global celebration of human achievement known as the Olympic Games.
I was no different from today’s Olympians, those who have spent the past two weeks at Sochi, pursuing their dreams of Olympic hardware, driven by similar compulsions. But the ending of their story is a happy one, whether they come home with medals to savor or memories to share, whereas mine was not. They got to compete, but I had to stay home.
About 10 percent of people are gay or
lesbian. Homosexuals are born that way. All religions condemn homosexuality. There’s no such thing as a gay or trans child. All bisexual men are actually gay; all bisexual women are
actually straight. Coming out today is easier than ever
before. Hate crime laws prevent
violence against LGBT people.
We’ve all heard (and repeated) statements like these
before. But, are any of them actually true? According to Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini, and Michael Amico, these are common myths and misconceptions about lesbian, gay,
bisexual, and transgender life and people. And in their new book, "You Can Tell Just by
Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People they take us through some of the most enduring myths, providing historical background and examining the
social and political factors that gave rise to and inform each myth. The myths covered here aren't just those that have been used to justify discrimination against and
oppression of LGBT people, but the authors also examine those that have been embraced by the LGBT community and their allies. We hope the book will challenge readers to question their own beliefs and dispel some of the false assumptions many of
us (even some of us at Beacon) have been carrying around for years.
Read on to see what the authors have to say about ten of the myths covered in "You Can Tell Just by Looking."
Although Beacon has not primarily been known to publish poetry, we have always had a select list of exceptional poets who reflect the values at the core of our mission, including, for many years, the premier poet of the natural world, Mary Oliver, and, of course, the inimitable Sonia Sanchez, who represents a vibrant tradition of oral interpretation that blends and bends the lines between verse and music. Sonia has famously performed with rap artists and memorably with Sweet Honey in the Rock and other artists, including Diana Ross. Sonia has been on a mission for decades of using poetry in public schools and she makes it a rule that wherever she’s invited to read for an adult audience, she also tries to visit a local school and read to and engage with the students. We are enormously proud of her work.
We are also proud to have on our backlist several books of Spanish-language poets in bilingual editions, including a wonderful volume of Lorca and Jimenez, and one of Neruda and Vallejo, both translated by Robert Bly.
On the left, previous editions of James Baldwin's Jimmy's Blues and Gypsy. On the right, Beacon's forthcoming edition of Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems
Russia's new anti-gay law has a loophole: The law, which has led to numerous arrests, beatings, and bans against LGBT people, specifically prohibits the "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations," but homosexuality is as traditionally Russian as vodka and caviar.
Where does one begin the list of prominent LGBT Russians? Peter Tchaikovsky, one of Russia's foremost composers; Nikolai Gogol, one of its leading writers; from the world of dance, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Nureyev; not to mention members of Russia's ruling classes, including Grand Duke Sergei Romanov, brother to the czar and mayor of Moscow from 1891 to 1905.
What could be more "traditional" than this list? Indeed, so "traditional" was Russian homosexuality that it was even seen as a distinctive symptom of Russian decadence by some revolutionaries. Indeed, none other than Ivan the Terrible (1538-1584) and Dmitry 'the Pretender (unk.-1606) were known to be homosexual, or at least to have had male lovers.
In fact, what is nontraditional is the suppression of sexual diversity, not its expression. Following the Russian Revolution, the regime under Lenin formally legalized homosexual acts (along with divorce and abortion), but Stalin criminalized them in 1933. So they would remain until 1993: officially illegal, yet tolerated on and off, depending on those in power. Which of these legal regimes is "traditional" and which is "nontraditional"? Is Stalin more traditional than Lenin?
The reality is that, as everywhere, sexual diversity in Russia is entirely traditional and entirely natural. Of course, contemporary labels -- "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual," "transgender" -- are culturally specific and of relatively late vintage. But the existence of same-sex relationships goes back as far as Russian history itself. Indeed, a few years ago, a 600-page volume containing 69 biographies of famous Russian lesbians and gays was compiled by Vladimir Kirsanov, editor of the gay magazine Kvir.
Now we all know that Vitaly Milonov, the most vocal of the anti-gay bill's sponsors, had homosexuality in mind when he introduced the bill. But a literal reading of the bill's actual language, coupled with even a passing glance at Russian history, does not agree.
Of course, it's unlikely that a Russian jurist will really read the law so cleverly -- although doing so would provide an "out" for moderates seeking to control the damage it has caused, which now extends to calls to boycott the 2012 Winter Olympics, Russian vodka, and Russian performance venues.
Yet even if such a literal reading never finds its way into a judicial decision, it serves as an important reminder that although homosexuality goes by different names in different places and at different times, it is a traditional part of every culture that the human race has ever created. Sexual diversity is, like other forms of diversity, an intrinsic, natural part of the human experience. Alas, so are efforts, like Russia's, to deny it.
Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Dr. Jay Michaelson is vice president of the Arcus Foundation and the author of five books and two hundred articles on religion, sexuality, ethics, and contemplative practice. His most recent book, God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist.
The "Scalia Dissent" has been a particular subgenre of legal discourse for two decades now, amply studied in the academic and popular literature. Vitriolic, hyperbolic, littered with witty bon mots and invective against faulty reasoning (i.e. any reasoning with which Justice Scalia does not agree), it is something one now comes to expect in any high-profile Supreme Court case decided in a more liberal direction.
But Justice Scalia's dissent in U.S. v. Windsor, the Defense of Marriage Act case, feels different. Scalia pulled out the same rhetorical flourishes as ever, but he seems remarkably oblivious to context: the lives of millions of Americans. Windsor was not another case about crèches in the public square (the occasion of some of the earliest Scalia rants) or obscure administrative procedures. It was the case that decided the fates of tens of thousands of families, and, more broadly, established that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong, regardless of one's personal views on the subject. Agree or disagree that same-sex families are marriages or not -- they certainly are families, and certainly are made up of human beings. Justice Scalia's contemptuous dissent is contemptuous of these millions of Americans' humanity.
The majority's opinion in Windsor was clear enough, and exactly what most legal experts had expected. After dispensing with the issue of standing, the majority noted that marriage is a matter of state, not federal, regulation. Thus a couple married in New York is duly married, whether same-sex or opposite-sex. To discriminate against a married couple requires a secular interest which was lacking in the Defense of Marriage Act -- on the contrary, the legislative record showed evidence of bias. Thus, such discrimination violates the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection of the laws.
This reasoning is what Justice Scalia termed "legalistic argle-bargle."
Really? Argle-bargle? The term doesn't appear in my dictionary, but I take it to mean an incoherent ramble, the equivalent of gibberish. And to apply it to the legal arguments that a generation of lawyers and legal scholars have debated for years is, itself, offensive. It is offensive to those lawyers, of course, but even more so to people like Edie Windsor, the 84-year-old plaintiff in the case, suing to not be penalized that her legal spouse was a woman and not a man. It is offensive to my friend who can now apply for a Green Card, finally, after living apart from his husband for a year. Context matters, a Scalia Rant in this context is deeply offensive.
Of course, no one expected Justice Scalia to strike down DOMA. Yet ironically, the reason we all knew this is that, over the years, Justice Scalia has shown himself to be a duplicitous legal reasoner when his legal ideology meets his political or religious ones. That is, he argle-bargles. For example, for years Scalia waved the banner of state's rights -- until Bush v. Gore, in which he suddenly voted to overturn a state supreme court's interpretation of its own constitution. Indeed, just one day before Scalia's impassioned defense of deference to Congress in Windsor, he voted to overrule Congress in Shelby County, the Voting Rights Act case. So what is the principle here? We defer to Congress when it discriminates, but not when it bars discrimination? Is there a principle? Or is there, rather, just argle-bargle?
We also know Scalia is bargling in Windsor because of his many extra-judicial comments about what was at issue in the case. Shockingly defiant of the principle that justices not comment on cases before the Court, Scalia said only a few days before the decision was handed down that the case, like Lawrence v. Texas, was about "consensual sodomy." Sodomy - an act. Not sexual orientation, not what millions of people are telling us about their lives; not friends and neighbors and family members - but a sexual act. As if opposite-sex marriage is about cunnilingus.
Ironically, this clear contempt for and ignorance of LGBT lives is precisely the sort of animus Justice Scalia says we should not impute to DOMA's backers. In the same words with which he complains of being called a bigot, he writes like a bigot.
The ignorance of the lives of gay and lesbian people is not unique to Justice Scalia, of course. Others, too, cover up their ears when they hear about lesbian ministers, or gay boy scouts. No, they insist, there are no gay people -- only gay acts, only sodomy, only a "lifestyle."
But this is ignorance of the facts. The facts are that gay people exist, that many (though not all) say they were 'born that way,' that same-sex families are families. And while such ignorance may be expected among the extremist rabble, it ought to have no place in the Supreme Court.
Indeed, even if Justice Scalia still denies the humanity of gay people, one might've hoped that he would have recognized the gravity of the moment and of his role as a Supreme Court justice, and held back from ranting, just this once. But instead, by demeaning the people whose lives were at stake, by dismissing with an invented slur the articulation of their hopes and aspirations, their very sense of what it means to be an American, Justice Scalia has demeaned the institution he is meant to serve.
As for the LGBT community, we will not be brought down to his low state. At a rally in New York's Tompkins Square Park, a beloved artist and performer named Donald Gallagher -- a man who was present at Stonewall, who recently lost his partner of 40 years to cancer, and who once laboriously painted the entire ceiling of his church in Jersey City -- proclaimed that, in the secret language of the ancient gay elders, "Argle Bargle" really means "Joy to All." Argle Bargle! the crowd shouted. Argle Bargle!
James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, and one of America's foremost writers. His essays, such as "Notes of a Native Son" (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-twentieth-century America. A Harlem, New York, native, he primarily made his home in the south of France.
His novels include Giovanni's Room (1956), about a white American expatriate who must come to terms with his homosexuality, and Another Country (1962), about racial and gay sexual tensions among New York intellectuals. His inclusion of gay themes resulted in much savage criticism from the black community. Going to Meet the Man (1965) and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968) provided powerful descriptions of American racism. As an openly gay man, he became increasingly outspoken in condemning discrimination against lesbian and gay people.
The following essay opens Notes of a Native Son, a collection considered by many his most influential work. We publish it here today in conjunction with an essay by Eboo Patel about the impact this essay had on his life and work.
I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting
novels at about the time I learned to read. The story of my
childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it
with the restrained observation that I certainly would not
consider living it again. In those days my mother was given
to the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies. As
they were born, I took them over with one hand and held a
book with the other. The children probably suffered, though
they have since been kind enough to deny it, and in this way
I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and A Tale of Two Cities over and
over and over again; in this way, in fact, I read just about
everything I could get my hands on—except the Bible, probably because it was the only book I was encouraged to read.
I must also confess that I wrote—a great deal—and my first
professional triumph, in any case, the first effort of mine to
be seen in print, occurred at the age of twelve or thereabouts,
when a short story I had written about the Spanish revolution
won some sort of prize in an extremely short-lived church
newspaper. I remember the story was censored by the lady
editor, though I don’t remember why, and I was outraged.
Also wrote plays, and songs, for one of which I received a
letter of congratulations from Mayor La Guardia, and poetry,
about which the less said, the better. My mother was delighted
by all these goings-on, but my father wasn’t; he wanted me to
be a preacher. When I was fourteen I became a preacher,
and when I was seventeen I stopped. Very shortly thereafter I left home. For God knows how long I struggled with
the world of commerce and industry—I guess they would say
they struggled with me—and when I was about twenty-one I
had enough done of a novel to get a Saxton Fellowship. When
I was twenty-two the fellowship was over, the novel turned
out to be unsalable, and I started waiting on tables in a Village restaurant and writing book reviews—mostly, as it turned
out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of
my skin made me automatically an expert. Did another book,
in company with photographer Theodore Pelatowski, about
the store-front churches in Harlem. This book met exactly
the same fate as my first—fellowship, but no sale. (It was a
Rosenwald Fellowship.) By the time I was twenty-four I had
decided to stop reviewing books about the Negro problem—
which, by this time, was only slightly less horrible in print
than it was in life—and I packed my bags and went to France,
where I finished, God knows how, Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he
was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent—which attitude certainly has a great deal
to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world
looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that
the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that
any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as
I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced
from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only
because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to
be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next—one is
tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.
When one begins looking for influences one finds them by
the score. I haven’t thought much about my own, not enough
anyway; I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of
the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech—and something of
Dickens’ love for bravura—have something to do with me today; but I wouldn’t stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable
people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose,
the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has
been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by
the way, is the best one can hope for.)
One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer (and
this is not special pleading, since I don’t mean to suggest
that he has it worse than anybody else) is that the Negro
problem is written about so widely. The bookshelves groan
under the weight of information, and everyone therefore
considers himself informed. And this information, furthermore, operates usually (generally, popularly) to reinforce
traditional attitudes. Of traditional attitudes there are only
two—For or Against—and I, personally, find it difficult to
say which attitude has caused me the most pain. I am speaking as a writer; from a social point of view I am perfectly
aware that the change from ill-will to good-will, however
motivated, however imperfect, however expressed, is better
than no change at all.
But it is part of the business of the writer—as I see it—
to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the
source. From this point of view the Negro problem is nearly
inaccessible. It is not only written about so widely; it is written about so badly. It is quite possible to say that the price
a Negro pays for becoming articulate is to find himself, at
length, with nothing to be articulate about. (“You taught
me language,” says Caliban to Prospero, “and my profit on’t
is I know how to curse.”) Consider: the tremendous social
activity that this problem generates imposes on whites and
Negroes alike the necessity of looking forward, of working
to bring about a better day. This is fine, it keeps the waters
troubled; it is all, indeed, that has made possible the Negro’s
progress. Nevertheless, social affairs are not generally speaking the writer’s prime concern, whether they ought to be or
not; it is absolutely necessary that he establish between himself and these affairs a distance which will allow, at least, for
clarity, so that before he can look forward in any meaningful
sense, he must first be allowed to take a long look back. In
the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks,
for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to
look back; but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible
for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.
I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own
development came when I was forced to recognize that I was
a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my
past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this
meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I
brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of
Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them
in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper;
this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other
heritage which I could possibly hope to use—I had certainly
been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them
mine—I would have to accept my special attitude, my special
place in this scheme—otherwise I would have no place in any
scheme. What was the most difficult was the fact that I was
forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself,
which the American Negro has had to hide from himself as
the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white
people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the
contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to
produce Rembrandt. In effect, I hated and feared the world.
And this meant, not only that I thus gave the world an altogether murderous power over me, but also that in such a self-
destroying limbo I could never hope to write.
One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience.
Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this
experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.
This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out
of the disorder of life that order which is art. The difficulty
then, for me, of being a Negro writer was the fact that I was,
in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too
closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation.
I don’t think the dilemma outlined above is uncommon. I
do think, since writers work in the disastrously explicit medium of language, that it goes a little way towards explaining why, out of the enormous resources of Negro speech and life,
and despite the example of Negro music, prose written by
Negroes has been generally speaking so pallid and so harsh.
I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expect that to be my only subject, but only because
it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write
about anything else. I don’t think that the Negro problem in
America can be even discussed coherently without bearing
in mind its context; its context being the history, traditions,
customs, the moral assumptions and preoccupations of the
country; in short, the general social fabric. Appearances to
the contrary, no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in America bears some responsibility for it. I believe this
the more firmly because it is the overwhelming tendency to
speak of this problem as though it were a thing apart. But in
the work of Faulkner, in the general attitude and certain specific passages in Robert Penn Warren, and, most significantly,
in the advent of Ralph Ellison, one sees the beginnings—at
least—of a more genuinely penetrating search. Mr. Ellison,
by the way, is the first Negro novelist I have ever read to
utilize in language, and brilliantly, some of the ambiguity and
irony of Negro life.
About my interests: I don’t know if I have any, unless the
morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make
experimental movies can be so classified. Otherwise, I love
to eat and drink—it’s my melancholy conviction that I’ve
scarcely ever had enough to eat (this is because it’s impossible
to eat enough if you’re worried about the next meal)—and I
love to argue with people who do not disagree with me too
profoundly, and I love to laugh. I do not like bohemia, or bohemians, I do not like people whose principal aim is pleasure, and I do not like people who are earnest about anything. I
don’t like people who like me because I’m a Negro; neither
do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for
contempt. I love America more than any other country in
the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right
to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect,
that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may
even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must
find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through
the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than
this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.