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Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking

Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking

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Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking

Lunghezza:
401 pagine
3 ore
Pubblicato:
Sep 27, 2019
ISBN:
9780812296426
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

In the late Middle Ages, Christian conversion could wash a black person's skin white—or at least that is what happens when a black sultan converts to Christianity in the English romance King of Tars. In Black Metaphors, Cord J. Whitaker examines the rhetorical and theological moves through which blackness and whiteness became metaphors for sin and purity in the English and European Middle Ages—metaphors that guided the development of notions of race in the centuries that followed. From a modern perspective, moments like the sultan's transformation present blackness and whiteness as opposites in which each condition is forever marked as a negative or positive attribute; medieval readers were instead encouraged to remember that things that are ostensibly and strikingly different are not so separate after all, but mutually construct one another. Indeed, Whitaker observes, for medieval scholars and writers, blackness and whiteness, and the sin and salvation they represent, were held in tension, forming a unified whole.

Whitaker asks not so much whether race mattered to the Middle Ages as how the Middle Ages matters to the study of race in our fraught times. Looking to the treatment of color and difference in works of rhetoric such as John of Garland's Synonyma, as well as in a range of vernacular theological and imaginative texts, including Robert Manning's Handlyng Synne, and such lesser known romances as The Turke and Sir Gawain, he illuminates the process by which one interpretation among many became established as the truth, and demonstrates how modern movements—from Black Lives Matter to the alt-right—are animated by the medieval origins of the black-white divide.

Pubblicato:
Sep 27, 2019
ISBN:
9780812296426
Formato:
Libro

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Black Metaphors - Cord J. Whitaker

Black Metaphors

THE MIDDLE AGES SERIES

Ruth Mazo Karras, Series Editor

Edward Peters, Founding Editor

A complete list of books in the series

is available from the publisher.

BLACK METAPHORS

How Modern Racism Emerged

from Medieval Race-Thinking

Cord J. Whitaker

Copyright © 2019 University of Pennsylvania Press

All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations used for

purposes of review or scholarly citation, none of this book

may be reproduced in any form by any means without written

permission from the publisher.

Published by

University of Pennsylvania Press

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-4112

www.upenn.edu/pennpress

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper

1  3  5  7  9  10  8  6  4  2

A catalogue record for this volume is available from

the Library of Congress

ISBN 978-0-8122-5158-6

For Lesley, London, and Sharon,

the stars whose lights shimmer

upon my sea, interminably

CONTENTS

Introduction. Moving Backward: Blackness in Modernity, Early Modernity, and the Middle Ages

Chapter 1. Black Metaphors in the King of Tars

Chapter 2. Shimmering Contraries: Medieval Grammar and the Distortion of Difference

Chapter 3. Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale and the Spiritual Side of Race

Chapter 4. Black Metaphors Inside and Out in Their Narrative and Spiritual Contexts

Chapter 5. Separate and Together: Strife, Contrariety, and the Lords and Bondsmen of Julian of Norwich, G. W. F. Hegel, and W. E. B. Du Bois

Chapter 6. Enthymematic Interpretation: Mandeville and Racial Rhetorical Mirage

Conclusion. Race, Rhetorical Closure, and the Misuses of the Middle Ages

Notes

Bibliography

Index

Acknowledgments

INTRODUCTION

Moving Backward

Blackness in Modernity, Early Modernity, and the Middle Ages

The evidence is overwhelming: race matters. And it has mattered for far longer than is generally recognized. Many studies consider race an exclusively modern phenomenon: what we understand as racial ideology, predicated on the notion of an insurmountable difference between black and white, has been traced to the seventeenth century, to the increased economic expediency of chattel slavery in the Americas. This book seeks to push the timeline back much further, to at least the European Middle Ages, with roots in the medieval reception of classical antiquity.

This book’s aim is to investigate the relationship between the idea of blackness and the notion of sinfulness in the literature and culture of the English Middle Ages, with influences from continental European texts as well. Though the main target of Black Metaphors is the Middle Ages, the book also asserts the profound implications of the historical nexus of blackness and sinfulness for modern life and culture. Indeed, I argue that this conceptual intersection is behind current controversies over racialized policing and the resultant Black Lives Matter movement: these have significantly impacted media and politics since the movement’s founding in 2012 in response to the shooting death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin; the movement rose to further prominence in response to the police-involved shooting death of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

In response, scholars in criminal justice have taken up the call to investigate any connections between blackness and the perception of criminality; their conclusions represent a modern moment in the long history of the association of blackness with deficiency. When Jason Eastman studied 8,592 online posts in reaction to forty-six newspaper articles in 2009 about two motorcycle rallies—one mostly white and the other mostly black—that occur nearly simultaneously each year in the vicinity of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, he found a stark difference in posters’ perceptions of white and black participants: despite the fact that both rallies are moral holidays or periods of carnival . . . where attendees temporarily suspend social norms as they encourage each other to be publically deviant with actions such as binge drinking and public nudity, online posters regularly attribute deviance among whites to the need for a moral holiday among otherwise good hard working Americans who are in their normal lives doctors, police officers, teachers, lawyers, and even mayors.¹ On the other hand, black participants, for the same behavior, in the same place, and at the same time, are prejudicially frame[d] . . . as dangerous criminals who go into restaurants and [do] not pay. They steal out of the stores, they threaten people.² One poster claims, [I] went ONE TIME [to the Myrtle Beach area] during [Black Bike Week] and I really FEARED for my LIFE!³ Eastman identifies a white innocence or positive prejudices of whiteness that means white bikers are framed as having a charitable nature that the local community could benefit from even while they engage in perfectly excusable, even if unpleasant, bacchanal behavior.⁴ He concludes that, due to a general U.S. social and psychological frame of white innocence, posters frame black deviance as more threatening than the white bikers who are framed as temporarily suspending their moral convictions and are therefore unpleasant but not dangerous. While posters come to the defense of white bikers, claiming that any problems with the mostly white rally are caused by a few troublemakers, a few bad apples, no posters come to the defense of black bikers because many assume all black bikers (and maybe all blacks more generally) lack moral fortitude and are therefore innately criminal.⁵ This might seem like an example that is so modern that it has no place in a book on race and the Middle Ages, but it is only a recent and particularly explicit iteration of the long history of the cultural shared, symbolic meanings of race that inform the framing of . . . whites and blacks more generally.⁶ Whiteness means innocence. Blackness means criminality or, to put it in a way that is more germane to the majority of this book’s medieval subject materials, blackness indicates unrepentant sinfulness.

The relevance of the Middle Ages to current racial politics in the United States does not end with Black Lives Matter. It extends to the alt-right movement. Born of the same trends in U.S. culture as Black Lives Matter, especially the political correctness that has dominated mainstream politics since the 1990s, the alt-right movement is diametrically opposed to Black Lives Matter in its white supremacist objectives.⁷ The alt-right is also heavily invested in an idyllic notion of the Middle Ages that is little more than a cultural fantasy . . . instantiated in order that the indiscussible, what is unthinkable and unsayable by other means, might surface into discussion.⁸While Geraldine Heng devises the term cultural fantasy in order to address textual manipulation of cannibalism and other violation[s] of horrific taboos in which crusaders took part, the term is equally well suited to address alt-right violations of cultural taboos: namely, the movement’s commitments to white supremacy and violence, both digital and physical. For the alt-right, the European Middle Ages is a golden age of white racial homogeny. It is an age to whose mores the movement regularly argues U.S. and European societies ought to return. It is also a fantasy era organized around the notion of white innocence—from the social innocence of an era in which feudalism amounted to a system of inviolable castes in which everyone knew their place and was happy with it to a prevailing sense of victimhood in which all nonwhites are aggressors and all whites are blameless victims. This age is a fantasy; an entire historical period has been coopted into the mirages of white innocence and black criminality that comprise the mirage of racial difference.

This book investigates the relationship between black and white, the notion that blackness indicates sin, or moral deficiency, and that whiteness indicates the opposite, through the notion that blackness, whiteness, and racial difference more generally are mirages created and maintained through rhetoric. The example of the two motorcycle rallies has already laid bare the power of preconceived notions, of racial frameworks, to influence perception: the same behaviors undertaken in the same place, at essentially the same time, are interpreted by the majority of respondents to produce precisely opposite results. Studying the notion, now commonplace among critical race scholars, that whiteness in the United States and in the Eurocentric West more broadly is invisible, the unmarked norm by which divergent racial, ethnic, and other forms of identity are judged, Ruth Frankenberg asserts that the notion of whiteness as unmarked norm is revealed to be a mirage . . . a white delusion.⁹Frankenberg characterizes the mirage of whiteness as epitomized by a kind of ‘now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t’ articulation of whiteness and its relationships to power and privilege.¹⁰ She concludes by asking, Is the unmarkedness of whiteness a mirage? and responding, Certainly.¹¹

The racial mirage is not merely visual; this book builds on Frankenberg’s work by examining the mirage as primarily constructed through rhetoric. Indeed, her examples bear it out. She reports the responses of white subjects to several of her fellow sociologists’ questions about whiteness. These white interviewees overwhelmingly demonstrated a cognitive disconnect between their white race and their working-class economic status. They associated themselves with Americans who had arrived and thrived by means of hard work and no ‘handouts’ as opposed to African Americans, Latinos, and other persons of color whom they perceive as having received handouts. Yet, at the same time, stammering, hesitation, and prevarication in interviewees’ responses suggest that at least some white interviewees sensed a call (from whom is not clear) that they should act, live, and behave in racial formation in ways different from those in which they were willing or able to do.¹² The discrepancies between interviewees’ beliefs about whiteness and their economic realities and between perceptions of racial others and a sense of acceptable discourse demonstrate how whiteness and the racial ideology to which it is integral shift in and out of focus, becoming alternately invisible and visible. Whiteness, as Frankenberg puts it, can engender its beneficiaries’ "striving not to be aware of the racialization of their daily lives and subjectivities."¹³ The efforts are sometimes successful and sometimes subtler than at other times; they affect those who run into them like a mirage, inspiring belief and only occasionally being discovered for their disappointing reality.

A mirage is visual, like blackness and whiteness, and is therefore an apt metaphor for this study. But race is also a matter of assertions, ironies, antitheses, conclusions, and, on a grander scale, of metaphors and even entire genres—and this study proceeds from the perspective that race is a matter of language and literature at least as much as, if not more than, it is a matter of the visual. Writing about early modern English rhetoric, Ian Smith treats language as a marker for race and properly situated within rhetoric, for it is a purposive, persuasive invention or discourse on the structuration of human relationships aimed at achieving, in principle, a bloodless but no less violent instauration of group supremacy.¹⁴ In order to recognize and keep at hand the continual conversation between the visual and the literary, I call on Michelle R. Warren’s notion of shimmering philology. In this formulation, philology is used to define the genesis of interpretation or, in other words, to explore the space between material reality, imagination, and signification: in matters of race, this is the nexus of relations that allows whiteness to be invisible sometimes and visible at others, which supports the existence of frameworks that read white and black behavior of the same kind, in the same place, and at the same time with categorically contraposed results. Indeed, Warren defines the task of shimmering philology as to capture the ‘shimmer’—somehow render its motions despite the graphic and semiotic limits of [text]:¹⁵ to capture the essence of that which appears alternately and continually present and nonpresent. The concept of shimmering philology—to which I would add my own term for its primary element: rhetorical mirage—in fact has its genesis in the visual mirage. Warren goes on, Mirage is the metaphor for this philology poised between reality and fiction.¹⁶ Rhetorical mirage, as well as its shimmer, is the visual mirage’s linguistic extension.

Mirage, whether visual or rhetorical, has its genesis in material reality but quickly moves into the realms of imagination and interpretation. Indeed, visual mirage occurs when light rays bend and cause an image from above to appear inverted below; it is physical though it is not what it appears to be. As Warren points out, Since the mirage is physical, it can be photographed.¹⁷ Of course, it depicts what is real as if it were where and in conditions that it is not. The mirage funnels material reality through a set of material conditions (bending light rays, hot and turbulent air) that produce illusions that engage the imagination. The classic and oft-cited mirage is one of the blue sky projected onto the desert sands in order to make the thirsty wanderer believe that there is an oasis of life-giving water before him. "Mirage thus captures the nexus of reality and projection that defines interpretation.¹⁸ The study of the rhetorical mirage and its literary uses reveals that philology, too, constructs meaning out of materiality and imagination."¹⁹

The intersections of material reality, imagination, and signification are very much the spaces that the investigation of race calls us to explore. The exploration of these spaces is what leads Eastman to the refrain that echoes throughout his essay: the exact same thing, in the exact same place, at the exact same time. He mentions this phrase, or a version of it, six times.²⁰ It is only imagination that leads from the material reality of biker behavior in North Myrtle Beach and Atlantic Beach to the conclusion that the behaviors of white and black bikers are born of different impulses—to relax, to plunder. It is imagination that leads to the interpretation that white biker behavior signifies differently: white bikers are essentially good, hard-working people who are out to have a good time while black bikers are essentially criminals who have come to wreak havoc on the area. The value of examining the intersections of reality, imagination, and interpretation has also been underscored by work that explicitly addresses race and the Middle Ages, such as that by Lynn T. Ramey. Ramey convincingly argues that blackness in the Middle Ages was an unstable referent, so abstract as to have no meaning and having ceased to signify a corporeal existence, laying the necessary groundwork for the rapidly approaching Middle Passage slave trade.²¹ Though Black Metaphors strives to keep in the foreground the material ramifications of medieval race-thinking and modern racial ideology, with their implications for real bodies, Ramey’s study quite successfully demonstrates the extent to which blackness in the Middle Ages was a metaphorical vehicle whose engagements with imagination and interpretation were exceedingly flexible.

The spaces between reality, imagination, interpretation, and signification are recognized by Toni Morrison when she describes race as a fiction that has very real material consequences: "There is no such thing as race. None. Scientifically, Anthropologically. Race-ism is a construct, a social construct. And it has benefits. It has . . . money can be made off of it. And people who don’t like themselves can feel better because of it. It can describe certain kinds of behavior that are wrong or misleading. So it has a social function, racism."²² In a later interview, published on April 19, 2015, upon the release of her novel God Help the Child, Morrison elaborates, Race is the classification of a species. And we are the human race, period. But the other thing—the hostility, the racism—is the money-maker. And it also has some emotional satisfaction for people who need it.²³ Both iterations of Morrison’s view on race recognize the space between the material reality of a singular, anthropological, scientific, human race and the construct of racism, the imagination of racial difference. This imagination is interpreted until it manifests in material and emotional realities: wealth for some and poverty for others, high self-esteem for some and low self-esteem for others. Though a mirage both visual and rhetorical, race issues forth from and creates in the material world.

Racism is an interpretive process, and as such it inherently involves the possibility of multiple outcomes. Interpretations are not predetermined, though it might appear that they are when subsequent significations adhere to the frameworks set in motion by earlier interpretations. This is why another key term in many of the readings I offer in the pages that follow, especially my first chapter, will be polysemy, or the possession of multiple meanings:²⁴ metaphors are inherently polysemous in that each points toward something else. As I discuss in the chapters that follow, black often paradoxically calls forth white, damnation calls forth redemption, the present often calls forth the past, and so on. What’s more, metaphors often call forth ostensibly opposed ideas at the same time: black can serve as a metaphor for sin or salvation, for lack or presence; white for presence or absence, for purity or loss. It is not a foregone conclusion that bystanders will interpret the two motorcycle rallies in the ways that they do: it is only the effect of preexisting frameworks. Indeed, a viewer without entrenched racial frameworks would likely interpret the behaviors of white and black rally attendees in the exact same ways. Someone with racial frameworks in the reverse of the dominant white-black paradigm—and it is notable that few of the comments Eastman analyzed were written by self-identified black respondents—would likely interpret the white rally-goers’ behavior as morally deficient and black rally-goers’ behavior as a moral holiday.²⁵ The brilliance of Eastman’s study is that it exposes the interpretive process and polysemy involved in racial judgments by isolating race as the only differentiating factor, with behavior, place, and time being equal.

The flexibility of interpretation, the polysemy of the figure of the white and black biker, may surprise some; indeed, it was considered newsworthy enough to escape the pages of a scholarly journal in order to receive U.S. national news coverage via National Public Radio, where an online article about it had garnered 279 comments as of June 18, 2015.²⁶ But the polysemy of race, the multiplicity of interpretations that can be ascribed to black and white figures as metaphors, can only be surprising in a world where dominant frameworks for interpreting them have become entrenched: they have expected meanings. It is this study’s aim to examine the uses and treatments of racial metaphors—black metaphors, or the literary and rhetorical presentation of black humans and inanimate objects, as well as the white metaphors they call forth—in the medieval period often, though erroneously, thought to be preracial. The racial frameworks so dominant today were not as fully entrenched, though they were extant in formative stages. The Middle Ages allows us to examine the social construct of race during its construction, to see the foundation and frame without their obscuring facades of brick and siding.

Black Metaphors’s efforts necessarily involve temporal play: to examine the construction of something so often thought to be an exclusively modern phenomenon during its nascent stages in premodernity will at times feel like an anachronistic move. It will feel like foisting the present onto the past unjustly. This is not my aim, and such anxiety should be quelled by the understanding that the past and the present are far from exclusive of one another, nor does the relationship flow only in a linear, chronologically progressive direction from past to present. In order to understand the relation between medieval race-thinking and modern racial ideology, one must understand that past and present exert mutual influence on one another.

Every fortnight [the students] must present verses . . . displaying metaphors . . . and then on the following day . . . they must recite them by heart to the Master.

—Faculty of Grammar at Oxford between 1306 and 1344²⁷

’Cause you told me I would find a hole,

Within the fragile substance of my soul.

And I have filled this void with things unreal,

And all the while my character it steals.

Darkness is a harsh term, don’t you think?

Roll Away Your Stone, Mumford & Sons

In the vein of moving backward toward the Middle Ages from the very modern example of dual motorcycle rallies, the examination of another modern example of productive anachronism demonstrates just what intellectually useful temporal play—and in a popular media context, no less—can do with black and white metaphors. The bluegrass-influenced British folk rock band Mumford & Sons is known for making old-time sounds . . . new again. By old-time, music critics have meant the music of 1970s folk musicians such as John Martyn, Nick Drake, and Pentangle. Critics have, in their most extreme historicism, linked the band with the bluegrass, country, and jazz music of the early twentieth century. Less attention has been paid to the fact that the band’s choices signal interests in things much older.

The band directly engages early modernity and its literature. When Mumford & Sons released their debut album Sigh No More in October 2009 in the United Kingdom and in March 2010 in the United States, they took their title from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.²⁸ In Leonato’s orchard in Act II, Scene 3, Balthasar sings a song that captures the heart and the disingenuousness of Claudio’s recently developed lovesickness:

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,

Men were deceivers ever,

One foot in the sea and one on shore,

To one thing constant never.

Mumford’s album title makes much of Balthasar’s admonition to avoid love play and to recognize dissimulation and dishonesty, even when its perpetrator, an inconstant man, believes himself truly in love. In Shakespeare’s hands, Balthasar’s song is at once an exposition of and a metaphor for loves like Claudio’s—male loves that claim to be true and, in accord with chivalric romance tradition, would quickly blame inconstancy on the female beloved. Mumford’s title track is an exposition of and a metaphor for the inconstancy that is inherent in the march of time. Though Shakespeare’s ladies were advised to sigh no more long ago, they are, in the present time of the band, still sighing. Sighing with them—and here perhaps is evidence of temporal change—are the band’s unmistakably male voices.

Mumford’s male voices sigh and pine for something that ought to be more stable than romance love, which is steeped in a fin amour tradition that has inconstancy at its heart. The singers evoke an age sometimes felt to have receded even further into history than late medieval and early modern romance: the age of faith, to use a now outmoded term, a fantastical hegemonically Christian age in which pining for the soul’s fulfillment and salvation is a common and universal sentiment.²⁹ The song begins Serve God, love me and goes on to describe a love that will not betray you, dismay, or enslave you and will set you free before coming to rest with the beauty of love as it was made to be. This is divine and perfect love. A man, the song’s speaker, quotes Balthasar’s song in admitting to having one foot in sea, one on shore and a heart that was never pure. Men may be deceivers, the lyrics suggest, but God is not.

In binding together romantic with spiritual love, Mumford’s lyrics rely on metaphor as well as the alternating presence and nonpresence of the present and past, the secular and the divine, the male and the female. The lyrics make use of rhetorical shimmer. What shimmers exactly, as in many of the medieval examples I will treat in the pages that follow, is a black metaphor. Surely the band, all four of whose members are credited with composing each of its songs, did not know the importance of metaphor to grammatical instruction in early fourteenth-century Oxford—their knowledge of Shakespeare is laudable enough—but their verses nonetheless offer a use of metaphor to describe spiritual states that is worthy of fourteenth-century clerical students who had to present verses . . . displaying metaphors. Darkness is used as a black metaphor for spiritual unease and, as it so often is, emptiness. The dark hole in the speaker’s soul is at once present and not present, a void that is filled and therefore no longer a void. What fills it, however, is unreal and perhaps should not be taken seriously as a filler. The emptiness of the speaker’s soul shifts in and out of focus. Its darkness-as-emptiness is no longer certain, and darkness is characterized instead by the vacillation of presence and nonpresence. Darkness is a metaphor for the shimmer of a love that is at once present and absent, romantic and spiritual, certain and uncertain.

The black metaphor’s shimmer, the extent to which it is a rhetorical mirage, is easy to miss. In Roll Away Your Stone, the hole, the void, the character-stealing entity is called dark as if it can be described in no other way. But Mumford troubles the term. The singer asks—and suggests in the asking that the answer is yes—whether darkness is a harsh term for these things. In the lyric’s most benevolent reading, it suggests the hole, void, and loss of character are not all that bad and that there is at least some good, conventionally represented by light, in them. In the lyric’s most damning reading, darkness is harsher than these horrible losses—too harsh to describe even the loss of the lyrical speaker’s soul and his all-important (to the modern listener) sense of self. The vacillation between bad and good, darkness and light conveys another of Mumford’s profound and perhaps unwitting engagements with English early modernity: the period’s literature and rhetoric were beset with anxieties that, compared to Latin and French, English was barbarous and rude (i.e., dark); these anxieties ironically fueled the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’ collective enterprise toward English rhetorical eloquence that export[ed] and project[ed] the discarded barbarisms of a newly imagined past onto the barbarous African [inviting] the formulation of a racial idiom. In early modernity, the barbarous black African became a metaphor for England and its language’s benighted past as well as the glory of its interminable tack toward perfection—its darkness and its light.³⁰ Herein lay the problem with metaphors: a given metaphor can and often does mean its exact opposite. Indeed, it defines that opposite and that opposite defines it, until the two, bound to one another inextricably, become one entity whose divisibility is only superficial. The metaphor’s meaning lay in the eye, or more properly the perspective, of the beholder. What is present at one moment, in one iteration, is not present in the next. A thing is replaced by its opposite only to resurface in the next moment. Shifting. Trading places. When the lyrics’ speaker questions the status of darkness—whether it is a fitting term or not—he draws attention to the shimmer, to the dynamic shifts in meaning, that the black metaphor as rhetorical mirage seeks to cover over and to arrest.

Treating the shimmer of the black metaphor might seem to lend itself to studying blackness as an abstraction rather than as a material condition with real-world consequences, but it has not been enough for me to consider blackness and whiteness, darkness and light, in their abstract forms only. It has long been apparent to me that these abstract notions have very real and concrete consequences for the vast majority—perhaps all—of the 7.5 billion people on the planet. The belief in a strict dichotomy between black and white persists in the social, political, and economic landscapes that pervade in the United States, the British Isles, and, to differing extents, globally. That persistence regularly shows through anecdotally in the United States when immigrants, especially black immigrants, from majority-black countries find themselves thrust into a racial world they do not readily understand. Take, for instance, the experience of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during her undergraduate studies in the United States. During a classroom discussion, an African American student became offended when a white student brought up watermelon, a food associated with stereotypes and caricatures of African Americans. Adichie recalls, I remember sitting there thinking, ‘But what’s so bad about watermelons? Because I quite like watermelons.’ Adichie did not know the racist association of watermelons with African Americans, yet she felt the African American student was angry with her because she did not share her anger. Race is such a strange construct, says Adichie, "because you have to learn what it means to be black in America. So you have to learn that watermelon is supposed to be offensive."³¹ Despite Adichie’s observable material blackness, the conditions for her to share the experience of her African American colleague were not present. Yet the fellow student expected them to be present. Adichie’s experience is an example of blackness’s shimmer, its simultaneous presence and nonpresence, its polysemy, even as it has real emotional and material consequences for Adichie and her colleague in the classroom.

For a black person, such as Adichie, to have to learn what it is to be black in an unfamiliar context is part and parcel of blackness’s status as a racial rhetorical mirage. When I was in college, a good friend who had come to the United States from Costa Rica when she was fourteen years old shared her story with me. She thought her biggest problem would be language—she arrived in New York without knowing English—but it turned out it was race. Clerks followed her around in stores, classmates assumed that she was poor, and young men expected that she would be sexually promiscuous. She found that even lighter skinned Latinos treated her in a way she never expected. It was not at all uncommon for U.S.-born Latinos to expect that she was not Latina because she was black. When she would open her mouth and speak to them in fluent Spanish, they were often shocked. She realized she had inherited a racial history for which she had no preparation—one that ignored the subtleties of actual skin tone in favor of the hard and fast distinction between white and black (i.e., everything not white) at its core. The meanings blackness is supposed to bring with it, in the American context in this case, are visible from some angles, but they are invisible from others. They color differently the views of those who see them: producing anger from the perspective of one who expects racial solidarity in taking offense at a

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