Boredom: Three Variations
|The essay is autobiographical, written in response to discuss the racial climate at my institution, Xavier University in Cincinnati Ohio. In three parts, the essay begins by questioning the very notion of "responding" to forums on race by suggesting that the "indifference" of boredom can potentially be more subversive than either attacking or placating one's environment/colleagues/institution/etc. Part two is a short prose piece about the educational process that led me to my current position at Xavier (professor of English) and the third part is simply a list of writers and musicians that I count as influences on my development.|
|I cannot always wear the mask of sincerity, responsibility, duty and gratitude required by "civic" or, in academia, "professional," decorum. Which is not to say I am never sincere, responsible or dutiful in public.||One: Miracle, Accident, Race - or Boredom
And so it is tempting, and all too easy, to fall back on autobiography. And if I begin in medias res, if I begin to give in, just a little, to the confessional impulse that conditions autobiography, it is because as soon as someone like me begins to speak on the topic of racism in academia, it is always, presumably, in part at least, about me. In short, I gave in to the autobiographical impulse the moment I accepted the invitation to speak here, at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, even if I knew in advance that I would not, strictly, speaking, be speaking of me. For someone like me, to speak of "racism" is too often read as self-reflection, as self-revelation (to say nothing of other-reflection, other-revelation), as though the word "race" and its variants could not cross my lips without returning to me. In short, "I" always seem to stand in the way of what I want to say about "racism." And perhaps this has less to do with the color of my skin than the well-rehearsed trajectory of any narrative, in America, on "racism." Perhaps to speak of race or racism is to tell an old story, one which is always being told because it can be so soothing to hear, as if in passing, as though one were eavesdropping on one speaking to oneself. As though my speaking on racism to you, for example, were just an excuse for me to speak to myself. And yet the pleasures of eavesdropping are that one gets a glimpse of a life, of a story, that has nothing to do with one. Depending on what one "feels" about a black man going on and on about race or racism, the experience can have two effects: the ecstasy of voyeurism, the boredom of voyeurism. In either case, the distance or difference between the speaker and the audience remains intact (boredom is a kind of ecstatic - or better still, ec-sthetic). Nothing - least of all "understanding" - crosses the divide.
What is this story, so old, so placid and pleasurable, so pleasantly boring? It is, in truth, a series of vignettes or parables collected in a book one can open up to any page and begin reading since it has no apparent "beginning" or "ending." It is a fable which, for someone like me, can only be the not-quite-apocryphal tale of a death and a rebirth according to the re-creation myth of American individualism. The myth and parable of this death and rebirth, in this context, can only appear to knowledge as non- or an-knowledge. In a word - as a miracle. So it is always, again, yet another edition of the autobiography of some Lazarus, the autobiography of a miracle, and like all autobiographies of miracles (especially autobiography as a miracle), it presumes witnesses, those who confirm that, yes, they saw, heard and even touched the one who was dead but is now alive. And if everything works out according to this well-known narrative of which Lazarus is merely one example among many, the kingdom, paradise, will be at hand.
And so it is, after all these years of teaching at an institution of higher learning. Like a well-oiled machine, I cannot help but note that the kingdom called Xavier University hums along efficiently, no longer at, but now in, hand. I am in paradise, at the right hand of Rank and Tenure, forever blessed with cost-of-living or merit pay increases. And if the image of the machine conjures up a sense of mechanical routine, if the idea of eternal bliss might strike one as a bit, well, boring, in the long run, the myth reassures me otherwise. Like a sturdy redwood, the kingdom, I am told, is a stately organism, still growing, still developing. Things are getting better all the time.
But a miracle is, by definition, outside the machine, outside efficiency. A miracle is the unexpected, the unpredictable, an accident falling or plunging into history, an unnatural monstrosity. Or is it? Can there, in fact, be a predictable miracle? A factory-line miracle? A monster that regularly appears as a function of history and nature? A domesticated monstrosity that could just as well star in some children's television show? Of course. In academia, as in Hollywood, the impossible and the absurd are not only possible, they are, quite often, required. Without them there would be no periodic blockbusters, no stirring new conference dramas, no hot new stars or long-tooth veterans, no talk shows/forums on, for example, racism in academia.
|So why lend my name, my person, to these proceedings? Given my impatience with public ceremony, with public ritual, why permit myself to be a part of this unsurprising spectacle? If I freely confess to this defect in civic protocol, it is only because I am still suspicious of the religious aura that surrounds "civic responsibility," "civic duty," and I am only slightly less suspicious of the incantations of "professional responsibility," "professional duty." And so I cannot always wear the mask of sincerity, responsibility, duty and gratitude required by "civic" or, in academia, "professional," decorum. Which is not to say I am never sincere, responsible or dutiful in public. For example, I would like to express - and this is sincere - my gratitude to Professor Leo Klein who was kind enough to ask me to make a contribution to this roundtable. And it goes without saying that nothing of the above or of what follows diminishes my belief in his sincerity.
And yet the autobiography of a predictable miracle can only be of interest to those who do not know, or do not wish to know, how old, how tiresome, how predictable, how boring, this parable or story is. And this is why I choose to be here: precisely because it is an old and boring story, which is to say, a story listened to but seldom heard. For some, of course, it is inevitably a story "about" race. And according to the usual protocols, I am here to either reassure or disturb, titillate or bore, just as you are expected to be sympathetic or hostile, understanding or perplexed. Perhaps it is a defect of character that makes me prefer the consolations of boredom. But even if that is true, it is not merely a defect that makes me want to deploy, as a kind of counterweapon, boredom. Boredom is, can be, I believe, much more subversive, much more disturbing, much more insinuating, and thus much more effective, than the predictable rattling of the sword or the equally predictable beating of the sword into a ploughshare. Boredom is the perfect tonic for the miracle or monstrous. Boredom undermines the accident that arrives from outside history. Boredom is the placid effect of diminished expectations, without which ambush, surprise, the unpredictable miracle, the gift of irruption, could not occur. Boredom is not a clarion call in the wilderness of history. Rather, boredom is the diversionary tactic of the monstrosity that cannot be recuperated by any invocations of the "natural."
I prefer to bore because boredom, unlike race, unlike class, unlike gender, is not an accident from the perspective of human genealogy. Boredom is deliberation, forethought, premeditation, certainty, predictability. Boredom can be, under certain circumstances, akin to a crime. But a crime against what? Against whom?
Well, race for one. For race, as the biologists and philosophers assure us, is, at best, an accident. Some go further and say that race is an epistemological absurdity, an impossible conceit. Would it not follow, then, that race is an accident waiting to happen, waiting to enter the realm of the possible, waiting to arrive in history as an event, even if it is an accident that happens all the time? How can race be an accident waiting to happen and an accident that happens all the time? Is this not a sign that we have entered the realm of the absurd? The impossible?
If I take this absurdity, this impossibility, seriously (and since I am speaking of racism in academia, how can I not be serious?), I must also ask these questions: what happens while race is waiting to happen, when race is not happening (as it happens all the time)? Is there ever a period when race is not happening?
To the last question I answer yes, but perhaps you will not resist or embrace this affirmation too quickly if I tell you that those lulls in American history when race is apparently not happening have, for me at least, the uneasy calm of a cease-fire in an interminable war. Still, lulls are lulls, and during those periods what happens - without seeming to happen - is "simply" everything else, which is to say, simply boredom. Boredom: that which one does not know, does not wish to know, has no interest in knowing. In short, boredom is what happens every other month except, for example, February, while race is what happens in, for example, airports during February, that window of opportunity and crisis through which black academics pass en masse on their way to yet another special program at another college, on their separate ways to honor black history month - I mean, to honor black history.
What happens while race is waiting to happen, when race is not happening (as it happens all the time)? Is there ever a period when race is not happening?
|I won't bore you with the usual litany of evidence marshaled to support the socio-bio-philosophical critiques of race, the pedantic arguments put forth to show that race is a comparatively insignificant "accident" of biology but disproportionately significant "construct" of culture. For me, at least, the rather ubiquitous catch-all "social construct" is a bit too neat, a bit too synthetic and a bit too irelevant to the experience of those who labor under the dubious distinction of a "race" (with the usual updated euphemisms: "ethnic," "urban," etc.). Of course, like so many other virtual relations - e.g., accident and construct, theory and practice - "race' and race haunt one another, a point exploited to absurd, comic and tragic effects by writers as different in temperament as Ishmael Reed, Frank Chin, Audre Lorde, Ralph Ellison, Nella Larsen, Julio Cortazar, James Welch, George Schuyler and Toni Cade Bambara. But I digress. I bore. Back to race, that accident waiting to happen.
When are we no longer bored? When race happens. Or is about to happen. Or is believed to have happened. When race is no longer an accident waiting to happen. And yet, for all this, perhaps because of all this, I am not always sure when or if race happens - ever. And that, of course, is exactly when race happens (sometimes).
A few crude examples. When I visit my family, I don't usually think to myself, with admiration or in an agitated state, "Black people." When I visit my black male friends like Kofi Natambu and his Chinese-American wife, Chuleenan, or Kim and his French-American wife, Kathryn Savoie, I don't ordinarily think, "Black x plus yellow or white y equals..." When I walk into the grocery store near my home, I don't always think, "Black people at work." Note, however, the qualifications: "usually," "ordinarily," and "always." As surprising as it may seem, they indicate that, yes, I do sometimes think, "Black people etc." Which is what someone who is not usually or ordinarily around black people would sometimes think...
On the other hand, when I walked into the new Graphics and Publications building one winter day in December, 1999 with the artwork and computer disks for the new issue of the student arts magazine, Athenaeum, and a white female worker accosted me and demanded to know why I was in the building, wanted to know, she said, "the nature of my business," I found myself dragged into history, like a miracle or an accident. Or take the other day when I was buying a birthday card at a local store. Staring at the rows and rows of cards as I sauntered down the aisle, I did not notice the elderly white woman in front of me until I was almost upon her. I apologized, walked around her, and tried to ignore the feeble fingers clutching her purse close to her chest. Were either of these "racial" incidents? Are there reasons to think so? To think not? Would the Xavier University employee have stopped an unidentified white man carrying an armful of computer disks and artwork? Would the woman in the card shop have clutched her purse had a "wigger" passed by too close? Maybe. Maybe not. I didn't know then, and I don't know now, and because I will never know I realize that race happened - or didn't. It doesn't matter what they thought or believed. In my mind, at those moments, race happened - or didn't. Undecidable - and so, boring.
But this is nothing new or unusual, not for me or for any other black person who believes that he or she is part of, has a stake in, that receding ideal called "public." Which is why autobiography is so dangerous. It threatens to make the subject of the story unique or, just as dangerous, universal. This could only have happened to a black person. This could have happened to any person. To choose here would be to elude boredom and satisfy the demands of either "a public" (the public of a subaltern, a disenfranchised minority) or "the public" (the public of absolute absorption, e pluribus unum...). To not choose - to remain bored, amid boredom, in "public" (elision of both "a" and "the").
Unique/universal. It's fashionable nowadays to berate the black protest literature of an earlier generation, given its eventual (in some cases, immediate) co-optation by the very forces it was arrayed against, but it's difficult not to see that if the choice, for a black artist dedicated to social justice and social change, was between inviting negrophilia or provoking negrophobia, better, much better, the latter. And yet it's hard to disagree with Albert Murray's assessment of the central weakness of the protest tradition: black people have always preferred keeping white people guessing. To that I would add: bored.
But this is America, and to the transgressive impulse of what Ralph Ellison called the "democratic" or "vernacular imperative," no defensive strategy against co-optation is impervious, no resistance to appropriation is absolute, though it has been my experience at Xavier University that inducing boredom can carry one quite far before it gives way to wonder or astonishment or curiosity - in short, intellectual inquiry (also a hallmark of the imperative, according to Ellison). For example, the Xavier University History Department recently held a retreat at the Vernon Manor, located in a predominantly black neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. Department member John Fairfield, who apparently had never been to the Vernon, told me how ironic, even bizarre, he found the disjunction between the all-white History Department faculty and the predominantly black hotel staff. For John Fairfield , the inoculation of boredom was no protection against a race "event." Race happened to John Fairfield, even if, for him, it was not an unpleasant accident or epiphantic miracle. I know he doesn't spend a lot of time on campus outside Alter Hall and Hinkle Hall, so perhaps he has no way of knowing, or little reason to remember, that all he had to do, to have race happen to him again, was to walk into the Campus Grill for lunch any day of the week. There, a room of predominantly white students and faculty are served by a predominantly black staff. As a black mathematics professor once said to me, when you see a black person on this campus who is not an employee of physical plant or the food vendors, it's hard not to feel as though you've suddenly, inexplicably, sighted some refugee from another world. You know - the world.
If one were seeking "positive" solutions to race events, racial issues, racial problems, cliches and commonplaces would be waiting with arms wide open. Call it the group hug of sentimental multiculturalism. Still, were there more non-white people on this campus at the administrative and faculty levels, race might not happen as often. Race might not be an accident waiting to arrive or appear from "outside" history. But I am not seeking, I do not desire, positive "solutions." Those to whom race happens - and today, it is happening to all of you, right now, if in different ways - generally understand that the only solutions that would matter would be, necessarily, final solutions. Boring solutions. But boring for, to, whom?
|Two: I Want To Tell You Something
Years ago, in the throes of not writing my dissertation, I wrote a poem entitled "A Black Man Who Wants To Be A White Woman." It was a poem that expressed my doubts about the step I was about to take, the completion of my doctorate and the initiation of a career in academia. Though the poem is primarily concerned with the interplay of race and gender in American culture, it also speaks, distantly, to the abandonment of self-imposed segregation, to the cost of that desertion, and to a return to a "self" propelled by forces independent of either "will" or "coercion." It is also a poem about spiritual exhaustion, attenuated options, and bankrupt resources.
I can't help but think of this old poem when I think of my experiences as a professor of literature at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. For those experiences are informed, always, by my college days at Wayne State University in Detroit Michigan. Although WSU did, and does, have the largest black population at a public university in the country, it was, then, predominantly white, and so my first day as a college student was an immersion in cultural shock. In Chris Johnson's 8 a.m. Modern American History class, I was, I believe, the only black student. I sat in the front row in the middle seat, craning my neck up at the shock of white hair atop Johnson's head. I'd never been that close to so many white people. Although my best friend from high school was also a freshman at WSU, I hardly saw him since I spent most of my free time in the science library, reading books on chemistry (my first major) and physics (my second), hiding from this strange new world.
In my sophomore year I met the person who would turn out to be my college girlfriend, and her friends and mine formed "the Table." It was, as black students all over with attest, our own table in the student union building. Anywhere from two to a dozen or more of us would play cards, listen to tapes, and talk about - what else? - upcoming concerts, parties, classes, professors and our own turbulent love lives. The only white person who was a regular at the table - a high school friend of my girlfriend - was himself more black than some of the "real" blacks at the table. Still, despite our semi-token, we were "self-segregated," as is said now by those who apparently never look around a grill or student center and notice all the all-white - and at Wayne State University, all-Asian - tables. The "Table" was my lifeline. I did well in classes but made few friends outside of those who congregated at the Table.
Then I started writing for the student newspaper and suddenly I found myself among white people in my classes and at my job. I gradually got to know my fellow writers and we began hanging out at the local watering holes. Needless to say, my black friends were puzzled, if not worried. Why was I hanging around "them" so much? No one ever said this explicitly but that was certainly part of the tone of their inquiries. What I had in common with the newspaper people, especially the film and music critics, was, of course, a love of the arts, a love of writing. What I had in common with my friends at the table was well race.
Just as I'd been the only black person in lower-level English classes - my major after my junior year - so too I was the only black person in most of my upper-level English classes. His remained the case through my two years of master-level classes. It was not until I started doctoral coursework and became a T.A. that two other black people - both women - appeared in the program. By then the Table was long a memory, my relationship with my girlfriend was on its last legs, and I suddenly realized that the number of black people I knew outside my family could be counted on one hand.
I took this job - at Xavier University - as I was completing my doctorate for one reason: my girlfriend and I decided to give our relationship one more try, from a distance, and we thought that if there was anything left between us, it would survive the distance between Detroit and Cincinnati. Looking back, I know we were not that naïve - or hopeful. No doubt my leaving was a way for us to end things without either one of us being responsible for ending things. Still, to her credit, she decided to take responsibility and broke it off for good the day before she was to make her first visit to Cincinnati. My reaction was all too typical: I immediately started hanging out with the Black Student Association as a co-advisor, going out almost every night, and dating women I met in clubs and bars (perhaps "dating" is putting too fine a point on it...).
So what has happened since then? Like most people, I decided to grow up (some of my friends decided to join me in this leap of faith). I began to take my work more seriously and, with the encouragement of fellow writers, fellow teachers and friends, rededicated myself to those things I'd always loved, loved above all: writing and reading and thinking, which is not to dismiss or denigrate passion since one cannot, I do not believe, truly read or write or think without passion.
I understand all to well those tables and chairs crowded together in the Grill, in the Dining Room, and in the Downunder at Xavier University. And because my profession and position have conspired with chance - which should be underestimated - I now have, overall, fewer black friends than white friends. Does this bother me? Not, perhaps, in the way you might imagine. Not because I see this predicament as an index of some personal defect or failure or miscalculation, but because I see my life as simply another effect of larger social, cultural, economic and political forces at work. And so my allegiances are with my friends and those writers and musicians whose works still speak to me of possibility. Indeed, I could have spared you all of the foregoing and simply given you a list of names, so to speak, both the usual and unusual suspects:
Three: Naming (some of the) Names
W.E.B. Du Bois
Edgar Allan Poe
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Joy Division/New Order
The Allman Brothers
Gang of Four
Crack The Sky
The Rolling Stones
Ashford & Simpson
New York Dolls
Alice In Chains
Art Ensemble of Chicago
Screamin' Jay Hawkins
The Neville Brothers
Dirty Dozen Brass Band
Asleep At The Wheel
A Tribe Called Quest
Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy...