on August 25, 2011
Few books on race can match this one, for it takes the "sting" out of a problematic national obsession. The author simply tells the truth as he sees it and as history has recorded it: nothing more nothing less. And boy does he do it with a poetic flair.
His writing reflects a rare sensitivity to the soul of America not often seen in print. Only a true lover of America could weave a complex, disturbingly provocative tale about this nation in the way this author has done and not injure any particular group's feelings. He makes you want to forgive us of all our national sins. And as the book elaborates, there are enough sins to go around -- most of them centered upon the multi-generational white fetish with race. That is not to suggest that the book is primarily a psychological book, for it is not. Yet, most of the tension is felt in the subtext, in the things he unconsciously touches on but leaves out of the foreground of the text. He seems reluctant to get at what is really troubling the American subconscious mind?
One such example, of particular interest to me and my writing interests, is the connection between the American taboo of interracial sex, violence and racial identity. From the title of the book one would assume that he would jump immediately into those topics, but not so here. Each topic was acknowledged in its own right but the connection between them went unacknowledged except as themes running along in the subtext of the book. I was disappointed that since he came so close to exposing these as meta-themes about race he did not make their hidden connections explicit. I wanted him to get to (what I believe to be) the "real" root causes of this fascination and preoccupation with race - black-on-white sex -- but he only repeatedly hinted and insinuated at this indirectly in the subtext.
And in fact, in retrospect, his omission of them is one of the beauties of the book: It is in no way "preachy." This author has no axes to grind even though I would have been happier if he had had axes to grind. He is primarily a storyteller in love with his subject, America. He sees it as part of his duty to tell the truth about America's difficult racial history. He does not embellish it; or pretty it up, nor does he wallow in recriminations, finger-pointing or victimhood. He simply finds novel ways to make ugly historical truths as painless as possible, and succeeds at it again and again.
When he drops a bomb, like his revelations about Abe Lincoln being a racist, for instance (something any historian worth his salt already knows), you don't know it has been detonated until several pages later. When he has Lincoln suggesting to Indians in the midst's of the Civil War that white men are not warlike like the Indians are?
The author's theory about the evolution of whiteness is coherent, almost believable except for the gapping hole (mentioned above) left at its center. He argues, quite correctly in my view, that whiteness is an after the fact phantom organic development, a stealth tribal mask built after the fact to cover up the mayhem of imperialism. According to him, the white race was the name given to the "act of disremembering" all of that mayhem. That is why whiteness has no racial past. There is nothing else to see in the past but inchoate violence, confusion and contradictions. Whiteness thus can only exist in the present. The past, to the extent it exists at all must be constantly "doctored" to persevere meanings of whiteness in the present.
There is so much truth to this theory that one is almost ready to buy it, lock, stock and barrel, except that it explains away more than it explains. I hope the author realized that in shaping the theory of whiteness in this way, he leaves as the perfect metaphor for whiteness the Ku Klux Klan: A group of respectable whites riding around on horses covered in sheets in the middle of the night engaging in mayhem against those they have defined as inferior to themselves. They engage in atrocities always involving sexual violence, pray to their Christian God, and then seamlessly melt back into normal society. Writ large that is what the author has told us that whiteness is. And who am I to disagree with him on this score.
However, the real question at the center of the meaning of whiteness is not why it developed as a covert racial entity, but why it has been surrounded by all the violence, sex, religion, hatred and covertness in the first place? History is replete with other conquering tribes that engaged in imperialism without all of these?
The answer of course must lie deeper, in the Freudian analysis of the insecurities driving the mostly male white tribe then and still driving it now. At the root of white narcissism (and its faux superiority), is in fact a deep inferiority complex, one that has a definite unacknowledged sexual dependency component to it. It goes almost without saying that it is an elementary exercise in Freudian analysis to prove that the white man's "superiority complex" is little more than an "inferiority complex" in disguise. Only inferior people actually have a need to prove and demonstrate their superiority. Thus, white males not only do not believe that they are superior, they fear deep within their souls that they are in fact quite inferior beings. And at a very basic level they also feel sexually inadequate. The best proof of this is that even though they control the world (even if they do so in an arbitrary and capricious manner and mostly under psychological and military duress) they still depend on others to define who they are. White identity can only be centered, its social order and the hierarchy through which it is expressed legitimized, through other non-white peoples. Whiteness is clearly a case of Narcissus looking into the mirror on the wall and seeing a non-white face that tells him who he is. Without the black mirror's edict, whiteness does not exist. Put differently, whiteness cannot exist in a social vacuum. It cannot be self-legitimized any more than it can be self-defined.
Thus, a somewhat speculative explanation that fills the hole the author leaves in his analysis is this one: Two things were missing on the American frontier, labor and female sexual partners (90% of the frontier population were men). Both deficiencies served as the basis for the primary inner fears that animated male frontier life (and eventually became the source of his feelings of inferiority). Slaves obviously served as one source for killing two birds with one stone; that is to say, for servicing both needs. Eventually enough white women did come on the scene to take over the sexual duties and responsibilities. However, it took the white man sometime to wean himself off of black slave sex.
The point however, is not the sex per se, but that altogether, this twin dependency simply pointed more clearly to the fact that the white man was needy and could not survive without the labor of blacks or without the sex of women, and more often than admitted, the sex of black women. Here is where the violence, religion and sex nexus come together to fill in the hole and to complete the picture. It was the self-hatred generated by this twin dependency that animated white male insecurities, inferiority and thus promoted his violence. For obvious reasons, blacks, the pre-defined inferiors, received the brunt of white male self-hatred in the form of indiscriminant violence. Religion of course was used as it is always used, to clean up the moral mess after the fact. That is, it was used as a way of atoning for both the violence and the illicit sex.
Ultimately, this author shows that race, racism, violence, religion, and sex are about defining a nation and a culture, and therefore are all an integral part of the American DNA and thus are things that we can either shrink or hide from, or distort with dishonest after the fact narratives. As disturbing as this book's content is, the author succeeds in proving that telling the truth about our history is the best medicine and will in the end set us free and at the same time make us stronger. Ten stars.