Just Us in 2021

I finished Claudia Rankine’s Just Us: An American Conversation yesterday (coincidentally on Martin Luther King Day). Just Us is once again a fascinating mix of poetry, art, criticism and (personal) essay on the current state of race and racism in the United States. The title is (probably) adapted from a Richard Pryor quote Rankine also uses as an epigraph: “You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us.”

Even more so than Citizen, Just Us is interested in conversations between Rankine and white people, and attempts to get closer to an understanding of whiteness (and its implications for BIPOC) in the USA in 2020. Rankine talks with white men in airports about white privilege, asks Black women and white women about the benefits of blonde hair, and investigates the liminal spaces these kinds of conversations create. 

These conversations are sometimes uncomfortable, mostly challenging and always crucial for white readers like me. The book, but particularly the last passage, will guide me through 2021, from the beginning of the Biden administration to the German federal elections: 

“The murkiness as we exist alongside each other calls us forward. I  don’t want to forget that I am here; at any given moment we are, each of us, next to any other capable of both the best and the worst our democracy has to offer.”

Citizen: An American Lyric

“because white men can’t 

police their imagination

black men are dying”

I reread Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric recently. Published in 2014, this poetic, artistic snapshot of Black life in the US is stunning in its impact and intellectual heft. The book is decidedly not written for white men like me, and can, maybe should make white people uncomfortable. The combination of Rankine’s play with subject positions and the language’s poetic density makes me connect with the (narrative) voices. 

Citizen was The Stacks Podcast book of the month (part of the reason I reread it). I really recommend listening to the episode. Darnell Moore’s excellent critique of what is left invisible (queer, trans Black lives) and the strengths of indeterminacy really expanded my understanding of the book.

What White People Don’t Want to Hear (But Should Know) About Racism

“Doch die sogenannten Rassismuserfahrungen weißer Menschen sind nicht die gleichen, die ich mache. Wer zuvor gut aufgepasst hat, weiß, dass sich weiße Menschen selbst zu einer überlegenen Rasse erklärten. Diese Theorie trugen sie während der Kolonialisierung in fast jeden Winkel der Welt. Es stimmt also, dass weiße Menschen in diesen Momenten die Auswirkungen von Rassismus zu spüren kriegen, jedoch – anders als bei mir – nicht als Benachteiligte, sondern als priviligierte Person.”

[“But the so-called racism experiences of white people are not the same as the ones I experience. Anyone who has paid close attention before knows that white people declared themselves a superior race. They carried this theory to almost every corner of the world during the colonization. So it is true that white people feel the effects of racism in these moments, but – unlike me – not as a disadvantaged, but as a privileged person.”]

“Was weiße Menschen über Rassismus nicht hören wollen wollen aber wissen sollten” by German author Alice Hasters is an excellent, personal book on racism and an ideal introduction to the subject for white Germans. Anyone who has already dealt with the topic in the US American and British context will already be familiar with many of the elements and concepts presented, but the strength of the book is precisely the focus on German perspectives, e.g. the effects of German colonial history or the forms of everyday racism and microaggressions in Germany. It also goes into detail why prejudice against white people isn’t racism. I can really recommend the book to all German readers.

I read the book over the summer. The book has received a lot of attention in the last few days in Germany, after German comedian Dieter Nuhr spoke about it on his TV show. He claimed to have seen it in a book store at the airport and called the title racist against white people because it makes attributions based on skin colour. He also claimed the book hit was a big hit in the United States (so far it’s only been published in German) and that this kind of “pseudo-intellectual” discourse was one of the reasons Trumpism happened. In other words, he acted exactly like the kind of white person who should read this book, used his large ‘satirical’ plattform to punch down at a Black woman, and got offended by a slightly provocative title and piled onto an already existing, sub-complex critique of identity politics. Nuhr’s ignorance would be hilarious if it wasn’t so dangerous.

And while the quote I started with is the most topical this week (and the one I shared on instagram) the key quote for this book – and white people like Dieter Nuhr – is the closing paragraph:

“Sich mit der eigenen Identität und Rassismus auseinanderzusetzen, ist viel Arbeit, ist teilweise schmerzhaft und braucht Zeit. Soweit ich das bisher beurteilen kann, kann ich diesen Prozess aber nur empfehlen. So anstrengend und angsteinflößend er am Anfang auch scheinen mag – er macht glücklich. Und frei.”

“Dealing with your own identity and racism is a lot of work, is sometimes painful and takes time. As far as I can tell so far, I can only recommend this process. As exhausting and scary as it may seem at first, it makes you happy. And free.”

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

“So I just think about all the children who have been separated from their parents, and there’s a lot of us, past and present, and some under more traumatic circumstances than other – like those who are in internment camps right now – and I just imagine us as an army of mutants. We’ve been touched by this monster, and our brains are forever changed, and we all have trees without branches in there, and what will happen to us? Who will we become? Who will take care of us?”

The Undocumented Americans is a tremendous book, maybe the most important book of the year. The best part about the book is hat it’s not for white liberals like me, but for other members of her community.

Cornejo Villavicencio created a great, impactful blend of memoir and reporting, productively angry in a way that reminded me of Audre Lorde. This combination enables her to write so clearly about the systematic trauma and PTSD of the undocumented experience, the impact it has on kids and adults, on families. She makes it so obvious that the problem is so much bigger than Trump, more systemic. These issues depicted in this book will not magically disappear when Biden and Harris are elected, but their victory might set the country’s car back on its wheels, and writers and activists like Cornejo Villavicencio might be able to then influence the administration, and the US might inch forward instead of racing further back.

If you’re still reading this and are a US citizen, I sincerely hope you already cast your ballot. If not, what are you waiting for? It’s almost too late.

1000 Serpentinen Angst

I highly recommend the debut novel by Olivia Wenzel.

“Etwas, das damit einhergeht, eine neue, gesunde Angst in dein Leben zu lassen – eine Angst, tief, wärmer und zerreißender als jede Angst um dich selbst, dein Leben, deine identitären Beffindlichkeiten es je sein könnten: eine Angst, gebunden an eine Liebe, so stark wie alles, was du bisher kanntest, mal 1000.”

“Something that goes hand in hand with a new, healthy fear in your life – a fear that is deep, warmer and more tearing than any fear of yourself, your life, your identity sensitivities could ever be: a fear bound to a love, as strong as anything you knew before, times 1000.”

1000 Serpentinen Angst is the great first novel by Olivia Wenzel. While browsing a bookshop recently, a friend recommended the book to me, especially referring to the book’s treatment of racism experiences of a Black person in Germany. And the novel is about that – in part. It’s also about (Black) life, (Black) joy, (Black) insecurities and (Black) fear in Germany. I was most impressed by the passages on the main character’s struggle with anxiety and the impact the disorder had on her normal life, her friendships and love. I recognized some of it, but the experience of being a Black queer woman in Germany adds extra layers of fear and complexity to the illness. 

The story is told through constant dialogues between the main protagonist and a constantly shifting counterpart. The narrative form is fantastic, slightly experimental and really successful in transporting these complexities, more so than an omniscient narrator or inner monologues could. This narration of the protagonists life and her complex relationships, particularly to her loving yet racist grandmother and her ill and mostly absent mother, creates a tremendous pull. Fantastic.

The Nickel Boys

“The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished. The White House delivered the law and everybody obeyed.”

Colson Whitehead’s book after Underground Railroad tells the story of a reform school, the Black boys in the school, the devastating impact of the school and the system that enables it.

This novel has similar strengths (based on a true story, the concept, the research and historical truth behind the concept, the heft of the prose in the best parts) and weaknesses (underdeveloped secondary characters, the sometimes less inspired prose in transitional plot phases) as Underground Railroad. It’s still a great book that is important and deserving of its success and accolades.

But it also made me realize how the important, successful, critically acclaimed, powerful ™ books by and about Black people too often focus on (historical) hurt and pain. I could use some recommendations for important, successful, powerful ™ books about  Black joy. Not because books like Nickel Boys or Underground Railroad make white people like me uncomfortable – that’s the best part about Whitehead’s work – but because stories of joy and success need to be celebrated and supported, too. Especially in these times.

“Trust Love All the Way”: Go See If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk, the Barry Jenkins movie based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, is a fantastic, beautiful, political, loving movie. Trish Rivers and Fonny Hunt are a young Black couple in love and expecting a baby when Fonny is arrested for a rape he didn’t commit.

Barry Jenkins and James Baldwin have one thing in common. An image/prose language that is both realistic and, at the same time, incredibly poetic. Compared to Moonlight, the outstanding 2017 Academy Award winner, Beale Street is comparatively conventional in parts, but similarly terrific. The beauty of the love between Trish and Fonny, the support of Trish’s family is in contrast to the ugliness of the racist system.

The acting of the entire cast is exceptional, Regina King as Sharon Rivers deserves winning all the awards this season, including the Oscar for best actress in a suporting role. The two young lead roles, Kiki Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny are great, particularly their close ups were tremendously heavy or heavenly light, depending on the scene. The breathtaking dialogues at the window in prison reminded me of the intensity of the prison dialogues in Steven McQueen’s Hunger.

Once again, Glenn Weldon of NPR’s Popculture Happy Hour podcast also sums up this movie together perfectly: “If Beale Street Could Talk has a gorgeous urgency.” 

I saw it as a Valentine’s Day preview at Zebra Kino Konstanz. The movie will be released more widely in Germany on March 7th, 2019. Go see it if you have a chance.

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

I liked, but did not love this book.

The book begins with failure. Or “my humiliation” as the narrator, a young woman, puts it. The young woman has been sent back to London by some unknown employer. She is hiding in considerable affluence and is tasked with avoiding the public, not to escalate a situation. From the beginning it is obvious that the narrating woman is familiar with London, affluence, the public, but not at home in these spaces. To distract herself from her predicament, she spontaneously attends an event at the Royal Festival Hall that includes a screening of the movie Swing Time, starring Fred Astaire. Watching her childhood favorite, she is transported back to a space she did feel at home in, and her love of dance. In this nostalgic moment she realizes that she has always defined herself through the “light of other people.” that her experience of herself is “a kind of shadow.” After the event, she returns to her doorman-secured-hideout and is joined by Lamin, a beautiful man from Senegal who is connected to the failure and someone for whom the narrator scandalously can’t have feelings. Still enthusiastic, she wants to share Swing Time with him. Lamin disapproves, for a reason our narrator only now realizes: Fred Astaire is dancing in black face. Her escapist space is based on a well-made minstrel show. This prologue ends with the narrator receiving an email from a childhood friend titled “WHORE.”.

The prologue is exemplary for the strengths and weaknesses of Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s 2016 novel about two biracial girls in North London. Beginning in their troubled childhood, both girls are in love with dance, and feel more at home in the studio than in the estates they grow up in. One of them has actual talent, and a dance mom; the other has more (non-financial) resources and becomes the longtime personal assistant of a Madonna-like pop superstar. The latter is our narrator, and the novel follows her to a village in a West African Nation where the superstar sets up a school for girls and influences the life in the village. The stories of the narrator’s job as a jet-setting gofer and her background in London are told in alternating chapters.

The strengths of Smith’s novel are obvious: Her prose is engulfing and almost flawless. The narrator’s observations, especially of the role of dance and body performativity in a girl’s coming-of-age process,  are insightful and absorbing. Smith’s treatment of race, class, and gender is smart and unique.

Unfortunately for a book over 400 pages long, the plot development is Swing Time’s biggest weakness. I couldn’t truly connect with the characters, but character development was okay. In comparison to the aforementioned insights and flawless prose, however, the plot was rather unimaginative. The big ““humiliation” hinted at in the prologue and the commentary and insights create high expectation in the first two thirds of the book, and the actual reveal in the end is then oddly banal. As a collection of observations and commentary I really enjoyed Zadie Smith’s book, but as a novel I was a bit disappointed.

Success as sole basis for respect can be ultimately dangerous. From Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann and the Holocaust. The thin volume includes the core of the Arendt’s reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the bureaucracy of the Holocaust, and the banality of evil. Arendt’s perspective is certainly controversial, but this small volume is required reading in dangerous times. And we are always in dangerous times.

 (Penguin Books Great Ideas (2005)) 

This is not simply a war language; this is an American language. In Sharif’s rendering, “Look” is at once a command to see and to grieve the people these words describe — and also a means of implicating the reader in the violence delivered upon those people.

A Poet Subverts the Defense Department’s Official Dictionary Natalie Diaz reviews Solmaz Sharif’s poetry collection Look for the New York Times.