09. Their Eyes Were Watching Christie

Mr. Dame was concerned about the environment in his classroom. Obviously the air filters in the school were far behind their alleged maintenance schedule, but the class discussion of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God had a chance to really sour the atmosphere. Or not. There was a higher-than-usual risk of somebody saying horrifyingly racist or sexist things, but so far the kids had been pretty resilient to each others’ insensitivities and none of them had acted out of sustained malice. As of yet, nobody had actually commented on Christie’s ethnicity, and that would be the wild card of the morning. He opted to address the book in the same way as the others and then spend as much time being quiet as possible in the hopes that Christie wouldn’t think to blame him for any offense her peers caused. She’s probably used to any nonsense they spout and is mentally preparing herself just like I’m preparing myself he reassured himself as he moved to his Discussion Stool.

“So,” he said, actively thinking ‘normal normal normal’ at the impressionable young minds before him while focusing very carefully on his words, “Their Eyes Were Watching God. Tell me about it.” No one answered. He paused his internal train of thought and looked at their faces. They seemed to be staring towards the window, but their eyes were watching Christie.

Christie waited just long enough to let the silence become awkward before responding to the class with “What?”

“They perhaps find it presumptuous to start the conversation on African-American history,” Mr. Dame suggested weakly.

“And I’m supposed to have an easier time of it?” Christie replied incredulously. “Shortly before I was born, my parents emigrated from Brazil to this exburb which is, like, seventeen miles from any other Black people. So I don’t have any more access to that Black culture than the rest of you. I sort-of get Brazilian culture at home, but my dad is still really into ‘being American’ — and making the rest of us be American — which for him is all about road trips and watching football. My mom says that futebol is the better sport and Brazil is part of America, specifically a sizeable portion of South America. And then they argue in Portuguese. And then they make out in Portuguese.”

Mr. Dame felt as if the whole of reality had been twisted ever so slightly counterclockwise. “Oh,” he acknowledged. “So do you speak Portuguese?” he managed to add.

“Only a bit,” Christie replied. “While I want to learn it, I’m a bit apprehensive of entirely knowing what they’re saying. I’m intending to study it more in college — maybe as an elective focus or a minor.”

“Very prudent,” Mr. Dame agreed.

“But currently I’ve just got too many adjectives,” Christie continued. “I mean, you start with ‘person’ and then you apply adjectives, right? I’m ‘woman’ first as we’re all transitioning out of childhood and into adulthood. And then I’m also ‘American’ which is both all I know thus far, but also nebulous in its pervasiveness since apparently only Stalinism is really un-American. I’m supposed to be a ‘Brazilian’ by heritage, no matter how much my dad is trying to change that — but mom’s vatapá is Brazilian. And I’m looking forward to being able to learn more about that heritage without being worried that dad will find out about it and insist that it’s clearly time to visit South Dakota or something. And then I’m ‘Black,’ too, sure. But when I’m trying to figure out how those adjectives effect my identity, my experience to date — honestly? ‘Black’ is the one I’m currently paying the least attention to.”

“So, pardon the ignorance,” Jacob boldly blundered, “but what’s the difference between Black and African-American to… um… you?”

Christie laughed ruefully: today really was going to be that sort of day. “As near as I can tell,” she replied while trying to weave grace and disclaimer around a thorny topic, “that depends on who you ask. Because technically any Black American could count as an African-American. Heck, go far enough back scientifically and you all would count as African-Americans, too. But the African-American designation is usually held by the descendants of slaves that are focusing on their history while Black is generally looking at right now and having a very different set of life experiences from a White person. I prefer Black because it’s simpler and thus, in a way, less wrong: on the one hand, people immigrating from Egypt are as ‘African-American’ as those coming from Kenya, and on the other, the Hutus and Tutsis had enough problems being Rwandan together, never mind African.”

The geography lesson begun, she pursued it further on Jacob’s terms: “I mean, if ‘African-American’ were really a valid term then ‘European-American’ would be your demographic. But it isn’t. You’re either White or Caucasian — and where is Caucasia, anyway, that so many people are from there? Even just the term ‘European’ means nothing: in a lot of ways Spain has more in common with Morocco and Greece than it does with Germany or Norway and that’s before we ask the Basques. So you take the adjective of White, and I’ll take the adjective of Black. And you’re lucky because you’re unlikely to encounter anybody who thinks you’re a race-traitor just because of where your parents chose to live, but that’s neither here nor there compared to how this strange polarization of skin tones is excluding some really nice people from a discussion of ethnicity,” she concluded with nods to her Asian and Latina peers that had just been roundly ignored by the false racial dichotomy.

“Now that’s an odd point,” Sofia said. “It seemed like most of the guys were lusting after Janie for her white genes, but now there’s a concept of ‘not-Black-enough’ at the cultural level. Some Black people claim President Obama isn’t Black enough, conflating his interracial heritage with his culture which they can’t acknowledge is going to be different from theirs simply because his success as an individual that has him in the White House changes who he is and who he works with.”

“Yeah,” agreed Christie, “Baratunde Thurston wrote about this in How To Be Black which my parents got me to teach me, paradoxically, that I’m not Black according to a lot of people. He very succinctly puts it: for the people who take a lot of pride in the Black identity that they’ve built up, ‘part of the very definition of blackness is being shut out of the corridors of power.’ His advice, having been to Harvard and campaigning for Obama and all, is for me to ignore them.”

“What about us?” asked Ken.

“Oh, I doubt you’ll ever need to defend your blackness to anybody,” Christie reassured him.

“Also,” Christie whispered to Jacob, “Baratunde uses ‘Black’ and ‘African-American’ interchangeably, probably on whatever sounds right in the sentence he’s writing.”

“Good to know,” said Jacob, confused but mildly reassured.

“But all of this goes back to Mayor Starks,” continued Sofia, “because Hurston writes him as a man apart from the rest of the Black people. They’ve got a strange libertarian streak where ‘everybody’s grown’ enough to take care of themselves, but not invested enough in any social system to, you know, create a town out of a bunch of shacks. And so while Hurston has a lot of hate for Joe that I’m not certain quite fits any psychological profile, she’s got a lot of respect for him as well and — I suspect — wishes that there were more like him in the community…”

“What did you see in the psych profile that didn’t make sense?” Heidi interrupted.

“What? Oh,” reacted Sofia as her thoughts broke off on a tangent, “that would be how he starts off saying he’s a man with principles, but isn’t above seducing another man’s wife — that would be Janie — and puts her on a pedestal, but then is insanely jealous and abusive of Janie throughout the relationship.”

“I hadn’t even read it like that,” Diane admitted, “I thought that the men were turned to monsters like that to keep us on Janie’s side regardless of what happened.”

“Cold comfort for me,” said Christie, “my options appear to be accepting domestic abuse or being even more of a race-traitor.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t too enthusiastic about that aspect of the book either,” said Mr. Dame on the expectation that it was a safe thing to say, “but let’s get back to Joe and the issue of Black identity.”

“Right,” said Christie, “Sofia was on how Mayor Joe wasn’t Black enough, either.”

Brett had his book open about a third of the way through to find the supporting material for Sofia and read aloud: “It sort of made the rest of them feel that they had been kept from them… It was bad enough for white people, but when one of your own color could be so different it put you on a wonder… There was no doubt that the town respected him and even admired him in a way. But any man who walks in the way of power and property is bound to meet hate.”

“Yeah, that bit,” said Christie, “that’s the bit right there.”

“And while Hurston says ‘any man,’ she had also leveled an earlier critique accentuating the difference between Joe and the town,” said Heidi flipping open her book, “where people are saying ‘Us talks about de white man keepin’ us down! Shucks! He don’t have tuh. Us keeps our own selves down.'”

“And that’s in the same vein as Marcus Garvey’s statement that ‘The best offense you can use against the Negro is disorganization,'” Christie added. “Which I doubt because the bigger point is a mind-blowing double-bind, right? If we don’t have power then we’re subjugated, but if we do have power then we’re not-Black-enough race-traitors.”

“And that’s the same sort of situation we’re finding ourselves in as women,” Sofia appended. “As a woman, you can either pose for Playboy or you can run Playboy. But you’d never do both because you either are wanting power or are resigned to powerlessness.”

“Um,” said Mr. Dame, exceptionally uncomfortable with the proposed dichotomy and wondering how the topic had been changed without his noticing.

“No, really,” Sofia persisted, flashing a pink and white book at him faster than he could process, “a the core of Ms. Levy’s concerns is that we’re losing feminism because women are too-readily participating in the ongoing objectification of women. Which is horrifying, but she never takes the next step to look at the power relationships. Which is quite strange: we seem to think that justice is a natural state of things and a value to be upheld” — she nodded to Heidi — “but then fail really question why there’s so many ongoing injustices in society.”

“Yet when we have an apparent systemic failure of justice, like in acquitting the L.A.P.D. of police brutality or O.J. Simpson of murder, everybody freaks out claiming that it’s proof of the racism embedded in the system instead of thinking that maybe the prosecutor just plain didn’t put together a convincing case for the jury to get the conviction that everybody thinks should’ve been handed down,” Heidi extended, metaphorically donning her jurisprudence hat.

“Exactly,” replied Sofia. “Which isn’t to say that there isn’t racism in the system — the statistics are quite clear that there is. But the point is that people get hung up on the characteristics they can see and have difficulty moving past those to the less tangible motivators that could have affected the behaviors that they weren’t directly involved in. And that’s the case of racism, sexism — name your -ism.”

“And when Bryan Stevenson was talking about racism in our criminal justice system, he was looking at economics driving injustice,” said Christie, jumping right back in, “because courts will treat you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent — which is fundamentally unjust and has lasting repercussions on poor communities. But the part of his talk that really resonated with me was his vision of an inclusive identity that works to change the external world rather than the exclusive identity that defies it.”

“But what you’re talking about is a group identity,” said Sandy, “which is, in marketing terms, a demographic. But the goal of an identity, the aspiration of an identity, is to be identifiable by it. So people will crassly snub the demographic that they come from, whether it’s a madame in a brothel or a school superintendent in Washington, because they have to actively exercise their power over a demographic to actually have power over the demographic. Can you imagine a version of America’s Next Top Model where Tyra Banks would actually be supportive of the aspiring Black models who worship her? No, she maintains her power by continually claiming to be better than the people most like her and putting them down.”

“So what you’re saying,” speculated Christie, “is that the people who feel that they can judge my Blackness would be doing so in an attempt to exercise their differentiation from me?”

“Well yeah,” Joey piped up, “if their identity is based on marginalization, then they’re going to try to downplay your claims on their identity lest you make them mainstream. It’s just more of errant binary thinking, but also a particularly rebellious — and generally ineffectual — strain of it.”

“It’s a creative exercise of power,” Sofia agreed, much to Joey’s surprise, “and you hear it again in Stokely Carmichael’s claim that the position of women his his civil rights group was ‘prone.’ He’s not pursuing justice, he’s merely pursuing power to have an identity — an identity which was an almost ironically perfect reflection of, and dependent on, the white power identity he hated.”

This had become too much for Jenny to endure: “I’m sorry, who?” she asked.

“Stokely Carmichael,” Christie picked up for Sofia by way of ineffectual explanation before adding, “the guy who wrote Black Power and helped start the Black Panthers, which is kind of cool, but then he claimed that he was given prostate cancer by the ‘forces of American imperialism and others who conspired with them,’ which is obviously kind of nuts — but also kind of eerie in how it echoes how Joe Starks died.”

“But can’t any identity just jack up its membership-requirements in arbitrary fashion?” asked Heidi abstractly. “I mean,” she said as most of the class stared blankly at her, “it strikes me as odd that Janie goes through three marriages and never gets pregnant. I’m surprised Hurston didn’t write about other women saying that Janie wasn’t fulfilling her role as proper woman a.k.a. mother; that maybe she was therefore just a hussy. Compare that to the Time magazine cover where a mom’s got her preschool kid latched on to her boob challenging everybody with the headline ‘Are you mom enough?'”

“I’m not,” sighed Brett in mock despair.

“Say what?” Jacob almost yelped.

“True story,” Ken whispered back, “but the joke cover with the queen from Aliens on it struck me as a more honest discussion of the topic. After all, Time had named her as one of the ‘Best Moms Ever’ a few years earlier.”

“You’re shitting me,” said Jacob, shocked out of his staunch verbal decorum.

“Nope. All true,” Ken replied with utter certainty.

“Or are you Black enough?” said Christie in agreement.

“Or sexually liberated enough?” posited Sofia.

“Enough for what?” asked Jenny, uncertain as to where Sofia was going with the question.

“Enough to actually want to be objectified by a bunch of pervy old guys while you pretend to be overflowing with uninhibited lust on a strip club stage, I would suspect,” Sandy interjected with her soft clinical monotone. “I don’t tend to compare my sexual liberation to other people’s on a regular basis,” she added with a prim smile, staring unnervingly at Mr. Dame.

Mr. Dame winced. And knew that she had seen it. It didn’t really mean anything beyond the obvious: he wasn’t comfortable being anywhere close to thinking about his students in sexual ways. But his involuntary reaction could be viewed in entirely too many ways, and that was what concerned him — in a way that previewed 1984, he supposed.

“Oh goodness no,” Sofia added, registering the effect that Sandy had just had on Mr. Dame and, to Mr. Dame’s horror, staring right at him: “We’ve got much more intricate and… creative ways for you to show your lack of inhibitions. Though actually,” she added to her classmates while Mr. Dame squirmed, “Levy’s concern is that our libidinous creativity is being stifled by conventional expectations of promiscuity.”

“But that was exactly the point:” said Heidi, “there’s no ‘enough’ except for ‘more than me.’ And if you can measure up in one way, they’ll just change what you have to measure against. Which goes back to Joey’s point that if somebody sets their identity by being on the margin, then they’re going to fight against you getting into their group or stealing their status in this way. And all of this is like how a bunch of the LGBT community got worked up about Salt Lake City being rated as the Gayest City in America instead of San Francisco: the claim that Salt Lake City was gayer than San Francisco was pretty much denying San Francisco its identity.”

Christie giggled slightly, not the tittering of a discovered taboo, but rather the joy of a discovery stifled down to almost-decorous levels. “Sorry,” she apologized to the class, “I just realized something that happened a couple of years ago. See, my family was on a road-trip. And we were passing through a small town in Idaho. And on some street corner, there was a bunch of angry white neo-Nazi guys protesting… I don’t know, reality, I suppose. Anyway, my dad sees these guys. And as we’re driving up to them, he slows the car down, and then he rolls down his window, and as we go by, he just exuberantly shouts at them ‘Power to the people!’ And what I remember so vividly, as we’re driving away, is how baffled and utterly confused those poor, insatiably angry white guys looked, unsure as to whether they’re supposed to be agreeing or hating. Because what my daddy had done — and I realize this now — is told them that they could never take on an identity so opposed to him that he couldn’t share in their identity with them, because at some point we’re all human.”

“But doesn’t that point to a larger flip-side?” asked Brett. “After all, we’ve got the ‘I’m the 99%’ crowd, but most of what they’re talking about — while horrid and society should totally do better — is really more at the 40%ish level and they’re just trying to drag almost everybody else in with them in a faux-solidarity?”

“To a certain extent,” Sofia ascented. “One of Levy’s concerns from her particular brand of feminism is ‘Sisterhood,’ which we’re apparently supposed to care about by dint of being born into it — only nobody she interviews actually does. Instead, the women working to objectify and subjugate other women flash their old ‘Sisterhood’ card and claim that they’re doing good despite all appearances to the contrary.”

“And then we’ve got the N-word,” Christie added, “because I hear black folks spitting it at each other all over the place. But they’re just seeing that it didn’t inhibit, like, Jay-Z at all, so why should they feel awkward using it? But what they’re not getting is that Jay-Z and all those rappers actually making money — lots and lots of money — are spitting it at them from a position of money-derived power. The people emulating them say they’ve got in-group access to that word, not grasping the difference the position of power makes.”

“Then there was that Onion headline: ‘Sale of BET to White Supremacist Group Results in No Changes to Programming,'” Heidi mentioned to Christie.

“I hate it when they’re not joking,” Christie replied, voice fringed with distaste and despair.

“I think it’s worth mentioning that the school superintendent in Washington I mentioned earlier,” appended Sandy, “wasn’t reported for her misconduct sooner because the black people she was offending didn’t want to cause problems for a successful black woman’s career. By allowing her to keep her identities, her old memberships in the Sisterhood and Blackness, problems went on longer than they should have. I suspect we’re seeing something similar here?”

“But there is also the possibility that the superintendent was working on a subtext of invulnerability there,” Heidi suggested, “and it doesn’t matter whether the black guys are negging each other on a porch or Jay-Z is throwing down racial epithets from a stage, it comes down to the same notion that the other person’s vulnerabilities are totally shameful. And what’s odd, you know, is how blatantly and painfully insincere they become trying to seem strong and invulnerable for the benefit of all the single ladies. But the research shows that if a person doesn’t have a vulnerability, a need that other people can connect to, then they’re not really going to get a really intimate connection. Rather than facing rejection, they’re ensuring that they’ll never be truly accepted. Similarly, the superintendent may have preferred to not be wholly accepted by the people she viewed as inferior if it helped her look invulnerable in her position.”

“If you’re waiting on men to be sincere while trying to get your attention,” Jenny superficially countered, “you’re doing it wrong. Hamlet was most honest when he told Ophelia that men are all knaves and to believe none of them. Really, what part of the woo-ing language would any sensible person take seriously?”

“So, uh, how do you choose a boyfriend, then?” Jacob asked uncertainly.

“Oh, I just go with the cutest liar and hope for the best,” Jenny blithely replied.

“This is all wonderfully interesting,” Mr Dame began, “but does it relate back to Their Eyes Were Watching God?” He could almost envision an essay being turned in not on Hurston’s work so much as Jay-Z’s. I got 99 problems but a mule ain’t one?

“In a larger sense, yes,” Sofia replied. “Hurston made an unpleasant world full of subjugation, racism, poverty, death, and bad diction. She was having to strike a delicate balance between describing a better world that she wanted people to inhabit while having to remain grounded in this world. Similarly, we may want to live in a post-feminist or post-racial world in some abstract way, but that often clouds our thinking on how to pursue those goals — or what those goals even really mean at a larger social level spread across hundreds of millions of humans, visibly distinguishable by sex and ethnicity. But you’d like us to move on? Perhaps,” she added viciously, “we should ruminate on how Janie’s mom was raped by her teacher?”

“I think we’re supposed to be discussing slavery now,” Jacob said sagely, much to Mr. Dame’s relief.

“If you’ve got some observations to make on it, that will help in essay writing,” Mr. Dame qualified.

“Well when Janie’s running off with Tea Cake,” said Brett, “she says that she lived her Grandma’s way and was done with it.” He flipped a few pages through his book and found the passage: “‘She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her.’ But it wasn’t just her Grandma; it was everybody’s Grandma. And it comes out in the culture from how their general ambition and goal is to laze about rather than get ahead. It never really occurs to anybody to establish their village as a town. But this isn’t driven by an actual laziness; it’s that they’ve got nothing to aspire to beyond laziness. Consider how Tea Cake sells Janie on on the muck:” — he flipped a few pages forward — “‘Folks don’t do nothin’ down dere but make money and fun and foolishness.’ They’re working plenty hard on the muck. The farmers in Eatonville are presumably working their sustenance farms hard enough to sustain as well. But lacking a clear vision beyond the relatively lazy and detached porch, nobody works towards creating abundance.”

“But why should they?” countered Heidi. “Historically, everything they’ve produced has been purloined by the white slave-owners. Slavery is like the inverse of capitalism. Adam Smith figured that to be strong a government just had to give industry enough security to enjoy the fruits of its labor. Continuing for a century after the civil war, they didn’t really have tolerable security to enjoy the fruits of their own labor. Even today, Adam Smith’s maxim that ‘masters are always and every where in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labor’ is holding true.”

“Point being,” Christie rejoined, reining in Heidi’s diverging tangent, “that just because blacks were hypothetically free, it didn’t endow them with a sudden capitalistic rational self-interest, nor a solid legal standing to pursue it with. The learning and effort necessary to create wealth instead of just surviving really was rare and got precious little help from the establishment. So the capitalist puritan tendency towards industriousness — which I suspect would’ve been influenced by their having been the labor class in Europe? — just doesn’t come through so strongly here.

“But there’s also a cultural void,” Christie continued, “and I think this is why Tea Cake comes after Jody. There’s a cultural void of knowing that lazing on a porch isn’t who Janie wants to be, but then what is? And Hurston alludes to this with the Bahaman drummers dancing: they’re attractive because they haven’t lost their heritage. That’s the real cultural form that the ‘people ugly from ignorance and broken from being poor’ were vaguely imitating in their music halls. And now we’re back to the portion African-American identity that either is perversely proud of their severed lineage or is perhaps over-zealously interested in re-establishing it.”

Mr. Dame was shaken by the twisting of slavery right back into the previous conversation. “So, would reparations for slavery help?” he asked lamely, trying to fight the gravity of the larger topic.

“Congressman Conyers started proposing that legislation back in 1989,” Heidi noted.

Christie laughed at the absurd turn the discussion had taken: even the teacher was veering away from the discussions of power and identity to wishing the government would use its magical powers to fix history in a way worthy of Orwell. “I can see that you’re not getting the big picture here yet,” she said. “We’re talking about race and poverty here, but you’re stuck being ashamed that these problems exist in your society. And that’s nice, but it’s those sociopaths on the street corner that my daddy hollered at that that need to work on feeling some shame before things can possibly improve. You can feel shame, so I’m thinking that you’re not quite the problem and thus don’t really need to. But I have to qualify that, because, see, the other half is that you’re having this discussion with me — and I started by disavowing any special knowledge of, or access to, Black identity here. If you really wanted to have this conversation, you’d go find yourself a properly — as Baratunde calls them — Angry Negro. And you know what you’d find? You’d find that there’s no way you can actually repair a lost lineage, a severed culture, and an ongoing life of slights and ignorant stupidities. You’d find that when they’ve decided that the injustice they’ve suffered is not just unforgivable but also your fault, then they don’t actually want you to make reparations because even if you could be successful, that would destroy who they’ve decided they are.” She paused to breathe deeply, betraying a slight, exasperatedly loving sigh. “You all know me. I know you. I don’t think we’ve got any problems between us per se, you know? But here we are having The Other Talk, proxying you all in for skinheads and proxying me in for a black separatist as if we can actually claim such identities for a dialog that’s been stalled even in congress longer than any of us have been alive. It’s nonsensical in its artificiality.”

Chastised, the class wandered their eyes away from Christie: she was just one of them again.

“That said,” she added, addressing Mr. Dame, “How To Be Black makes a brilliant point right in at the end and it’s that Black History education, and the overall self-perspective it provides, is dismal. Because we are Black, we start off being victims of slavery, then victims of terror, then victims of discrimination, then victims of whatever, maybe an unemployment rate twice that of white folks despite getting paid less for similar jobs, and for the versions of history where black people stop being victims of something then the conclusion is ‘and when they stopped being victims, they figured out that they really did just suck.’ And it sounds implausible right until we check CNN and see how President Obama is kind of offset by Herman Cain and Michael Steele. Oprah’s strength is undone by Whitney and Rhianna. Denzel by Snoop Dogg and Chris Brown. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson’s incredible mind is foiled by Clarence Thomas’s batshit insanity. You want to know why I’m enamored with my Brazilian heritage? Because while I don’t know what it entirely is, I don’t think it could be as troubled, as difficult, or as much of an uphill battle as all that Black Americana.

“Heck, let me bring this back to the book for you,” she continued, picking up the paperback and waving it slightly for focus, “because when Stella’s getting her groove back — excuse me, I mean Janie — she hooks up with Tea Cake. Now while this may provide symmetry for Jody Starks, it’s still a bad idea: she leaves her home and social support group to run around with a migrant worker, a gambler, a snooping thief, a wife-beater, and possibly even a murderer as he kind of implies from when he comes home all cut-up. In this day and age he’d totally be a drug pusher and maybe even a gangster — look at how he gets a pack together to work over Mrs. Turner. And while it may be very well artistically rendered, it’s hardly coming across as a positive cultural narrative for me here.

“And that’s what the critics totally missed about George Lucas making Red Tails: it doesn’t necessarily have to be a well-crafted film to be appreciated for reassuring us that Black America is something more than a bunch of victims of life severed from their past and in debt for their future. It should have been a better-crafted film, yes,” she conceded, “but we’ll start with appreciating the narrative intent and go from there.”