I’m taking a course this semester on American Realism and Naturalism. To fully understand the genre we must first, of course, visit the history that gave birth to it. My professor spoke a great deal about the Civil War, the lives it cost, the landscapes it changed and the people it left behind to rebuild the country. He says that we should visit a Civil War battlefield if we’ve never done so. He says visiting these sites of destruction and violence (my words, not his) always humbles him and brings him to tears (his words, not mine).
I look around the classroom as my classmates nod their heads and sound off: Gettysburg, Antietam, just to name a few. I am skeptical of this seemingly fervent knowledge of the Civil War – as I have been since my experience as a high school student in Virginia. Can they express the same of plantations, I wonder. Can they or have they questioned how these sites of bodily commodification, rape, violence, and destruction (in various forms) became sites of expensive Southern Celebrations?
I must admit that I myself never considered these very things until I read Jesse Williams’ op-ed on CNN quite a few months ago. I am saddened by the fact that I know where the first shot of the Civil War was fired (Ft. Sumter) and where it all came to an end (Appomattox Courthouse), but that I don’t know the names of the plantations that Southerners fought so hard to maintain, the very sites of bondage occupied by my ancestors.
My history, like yours, dear reader, is incomplete.
At some point, many of us reach an age when we begin to realize that the history lessons we were taught were very limited, skewed in perspective and deliberately light on narratives that reveal America for what it is and has always been. I’m currently reading an article about the origins of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. I read this and wonder at the irony: how does a country that ignored WWII until it came to their back door, that shoved thousands of Japanese/Japanese-Americans into internment camps, that had its own Anti-Jewish sentiments to contend with negotiate that shameful history with the shining pride of a Memorial Museum?
I read this article alongside The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At the forefront of my edition of Huck Finn, Claire Boss writes that Twain was “vigorously attacking racism” and that “the insults hurled at Jim were intended to emphasize his nobility and integrity, in contrast to his attackers.” She uses this as evidence for her claim that some critics just don’t “get” that the book is an indictment against racism and that its use of the n-word was just a reflection of the time. In a mere two pages she reduces racism to a word, and ignores the very real instances of (hipster?) racism that pervade the text. Namely – Huck’s constant objectification of Jim. He consistently refers to Jim as though he is owned – as if Jim is an object. Sure, Twain attacked slavery, perhaps in his mind even racism, but he, like Joseph Conrad, does it in a manner that continues to objectify Black bodies. I read these works and place Twain and the USHMM in the context of a society that likes to shift gazes. In other words, it likes to ignore one bad deed because the other bad deed, by comparison, is worse. Objectification of black and brown bodies is okay because at least it is not slavery. Focusing on German concentration camps is more important than focusing on Japanese internment because, by comparison, the former was "much worse" than the latter.
What is the unit of measure for trauma to the human psyche? I forget. Is it grams?
Which brings me to Miley Cyrus – whose actions speak to a much broader issue that people of color have been writing about and writing against for decades. The objectification of "othered" bodies. But, I leave the task of unpacking this to Tressie Mc:
"What I saw in Cyrus’ performance was not just a clueless, culturally insensitive attempt to assert her sexuality or a simple act of cultural appropriation at the expense of black bodies. Instead I saw what kinds of black bodies were on that stage with Cyrus.
Cyrus’ dancers look more like me than they do Rihanna or Beyonce or Halle Berry. The difference is instructive.
Fat non-normative black female bodies are kith and kin with historical caricatures of black women as work sites, production units, subjects of victimless sexual crimes, and embodied deviance. As I said in my analysis of hip-hop and country music cross-overs, playing the desirability of black female bodies as a “wink-wink” joke is a way of lifting up our deviant sexuality without lifting up black women as equally desirable to white women. Cyrus did not just have black women gyrating behind her. She had particularly rotund black women. She gleefully slaps the ass of one dancer like she intends to eat it on a cracker. She is playing a type of black female body as a joke to challenge her audience’s perceptions of herself while leaving their perceptions of black women’s bodies firmly intact. It’s a dance between performing sexual freedom and maintaining a hierarchy of female bodies from which white women benefit materially.."You can read the rest of her awesome post here.
I get that for some of you "twerking" is something best left ignored, but unpack Cyrus's actions in light of American history, more precisely the juxtaposition of White femininity against/with Black femininity, and see where you wind up.
As America gears up for yet another war that will cost yet more lives, I find myself wondering how all of these things intersect. How do US actions on/in Syria, Cyrus, The Civil War, American racism and issues of race/ethnicity all intersect to contribute to oppressive societies - both local and global? Nothing exists in a vacuum, as they say. Each thing informs everything else. And though I don't have the answer to my own question - I am indeed working on it because we must be able to have conversations about cultural appropriation and wars around the world in the same breath. They are both indicative and symptomatic of the might and "right" of colonizing powers.
Perhaps there is no connection between Cyrus and Syria - at least no connection that is neat. But there is definitely something to be said for the positioning of whiteness against blackness. Especially given that the mentality that goes into such privileging of one over the other is the very same mentality that goes into deciding to "wait and see" what happens in a war-torn country whose victims and residents are predominately brown.