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Monday, April 07, 2008

Young Englishmen and Black Boys

Posted by Aaron Bady on 04/07/08 at 11:08 AM

That racism “infantilizes” people of color shouldn’t be news to anyone. Calling a black man a boy (or a black woman a girl) means something recognizably similar in contexts as different as almost any part of Africa or the Western hemisphere, and farther abroad than that. So when, in 1952, Dylan Thomas referred to the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard as written in “young English,” he was only playing an interesting variation on a well-worn theme. After all, while Tutuola made his reputation as a writer on the strength of that review, the idea of “young English” clearly defines a very particular kind of cultural hierarchy, infantilizing populations instead of particular adults.

But it’s at least worth taking seriously the fact that Thomas thought he was praising Tutuola’s “thronged, grisly and bewitching story” by calling it a “nightmare of indescribable adventures.” Tutuola’s writing blends basic ignorance of standard English with an equal measure of cavalier disinterest in it, and a desire to be “bewitched” could make that devil’s brew into a particular kind of virtue for a white book-buying public, the same way Paul Laurence Dunbar broke into print by imitating white dialect writers. And just as William Dean Howells introduced Dunbar to white writers by using his own authorial stature as contrast, so too does Dylan Thomas’ review distinguish such writing from the kind of literature a white writer like himself would produce. That Thomas’ Welsh-ness recedes into the background should underscore what calling The Palm Wine Drinkard a work of “young English” accomplishes: it makes a Welsh writer into a practitioner of “mature” English. As with Norman Rush, here, paradoxically, it is the things which the white writer can’t describe which make him white. 

Thomas was certainly not the only person to flood the presses in 1952 with retrospectively wince-worthy expressions of praise, though. The New Yorker, for example, carefully placed Tutuola in the deep misty past, writing that: “Mr Tutuola tells his story as if nothing like it had ever been written down before…One catches a glimpse of the very beginning of literature, that moment when writing at last seizes and pins down the myths and legends of an analphabetic culture.” This is high praise, of a sort: Mr. Tutuola, after all, has invented literature. Well done. But “we” also look back on that achievement from a very different place (or rather time) than the one he inhabits: for Tutuola, written literature is a step forward, while for “us,” it’s something so far in the past that we strive to glimpse it and pin it down, like an insect collector with his prey. Tutuola’s book is therefore given a kind of objective value, but only as a historical text, the way pinning down an insect for its DNA can tell us something about human evolution. And however remarkable an achievement it may be from that abstract perspective, The New Yorker’s praise becomes damningly faint if, for example, we use it to place Tutuola and Thomas side by side: Tutuola re-invented the Model-T in his garage, but Dylan Thomas is selling a 2007 Jaguar, incorporating hundreds of years of engineering innovation by auto-mechanics as talented as Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot.  Which car do you want to drive? Re-inventing the wheel is an impressive thing to do, as impressive as re-inventing electricity in the depths of the Venezuelan jungle, but Pierre Renards like Tutuola don’t get to cash royalty checks every time the Quixote gets re-translated.

Johannes Fabian observed a long time ago, in Time and the Other, that anthropologists used and use the idea of different conceptions of time to keep “primitive” and “modern” peoples distinct from each other. Space, via such a strategy, becomes more than simply the universe’s way of keeping things from crashing into each other; it becomes an expression of time, such that people in the deep jungles of Africa can be seen to live in the deep human past while scientific research in London, Paris, and London represents the cutting edge of human progress and historical development. The fact that, in an objectively true sense, they actually exist at the same time and in the same world, usually in direct contact with each other, therefore becomes a scandal for anthropologists, as Fabian quotes Maxwell Owusu for noting: almost all the classic ethnographic writing on “primitive” people has to pretend that those people haven’t been impacted by colonialism or the “modern” world, the same way the past is uninfected by the future. Ethnographers have had such a love for studying “primitive” people living in societies “unspoiled by civilization” that, for example, they have been willing to overlook the ways such societies have so often been under colonial rule for decades, sometimes centuries. Calling a reasonably well-educated Yoruba civil servant “young” (and wrongly presuming him to be ignorant of the European literary tradition) calls upon this long tradition of understanding difference in geographical origin as difference in time, and is, as such, a kind of infantilization.

The New York Time Book Review, however, infantilized Tutuola in a different way, writing that “Only a dullard who has buried his childhood under several mountains of best-selling prose could fail to respond to Tutuola’s naïve poetry.” This is odd for several different reasons, not least because anyone who has actually seen poetry should know better than to mistake Tutuola’s incredibly prosey style for verse. Tutuola used the English language like the brilliant amateur he was: the run-on sentences run into run-on paragraphs, but as the novel itself runs on and on, something amazing has a way of happening. Yet the question of why the NYT Book Review would call it “poetry,” interesting as that is, is not as interesting as the question of what kind of infantilizing gaze is on display here: the belief that, in Tutuola, we see an image of true childhood, a naïve worldview that can say something true to the part of “us” that hasn’t been buried under white writing (like that of Thomas?). After all, it’s too easy to call this “white supremacy” or “racism,” essentially true as these charges may be; as racial privileges to different types of writing are being doled out, it seems less like a zero sum game than an increasingly complicated artistic economy, a system that uses racial difference as the energy necessary to ward off entropy. “Primitivism” is, to say the least, tremendously ambiguous. 

For me, the ambiguity of the primitivism in the NYT Book Review is that it “infantilizes” not merely to define the “African” by the “Western child,” but also exactly the reverse, re-defining the “Western child” by reference to the “African.” And as clearly “racist” as that is, it’s a more ambiguous dynamic than a word like “racist” can contain. Part of the figure’s logic, after all, is that an overly modern world has lost something, something that a figure like Tutuola can provide, as infantilized writer. In such a context, his youth is less immaturity and less a lack than the very plenitude of a thing which “older” civilizations have lost. Primitivism flourished, after all, in the interwar period when “Western” civilization had so powerfully discredited itself by its wars and senseless destruction. “Who else will teach rhythm to the world, deadened by machines and cannons?” demanded (in 1945) Leopold Senghor, negritude standard bearer and future president of independent Senegal. Such negritude primitivism helped pave the way for the emergence of a figure like Tutuola, declaring that maybe “young“ English was exactly what was needed by a world torn apart by the wars and hatreds of old men. 

Without passing judgment either way, then, it’s worth thinking about why, exactly, we are so quick to take “infantilization” as a bad thing. Why does it seem so obviously pejorative to call an adult a child? Why is “children’s literature,” for example, not real literature? Why is calling a black man a boy or a grown woman a girl so clearly an act of violence? Not to say that it isn’t--in the cultural context that makes it so, it absolutely is all of these things--but we should then foreground the fact that such a cultural context is not universal. In The Afterlife is Where We Come From, for example, Alma Gottlieb notes that the Beng people of Cote d’Ivoire do not consider a child to be a “blank slate” for knowledge. Children are agents of a very particular type, of course, with knowledge of a very particular kind, but those particularities are not pejorative (and it is not a bad thing to be “childish,” especially for children). More generally, the ways that we in the West tend to “infantilize” infants themselves are striking by their absence. In the Beng worldview, infants think, act, perceive, and respond according the variety of knowledges imparted to them by their time in the “afterlife,” a term which (similarly) seems suddenly culturally specific to particular Western cosmologies.  Why, after all, do we so easily think of childhood as a stage on the way to adulthood, the same way we might think of the “afterlife” as a final telos for life itself? If there’s a pejorative register in calling Tutuola a writer of “young English” it is in the presumption that it is a good thing to not be young.

I find this incredibly suggestive, because if Beng babies are not seen as ignorant or as a blank slate for mature knowledge, then why is it that thinking of Tutuola as a writer of “young English” is so obviously pejorative and racist? After all, if not only racial infantilization is seen as a social construct, but any kind of infantilization, then what if we aren’t so much infantilizing the racial other as we are doing the reverse: using structures of feeling derived from “race” to understand/re-invent childhood? After all, the idea of the child, as an object of pedagogical attention and disciplinary violence, developed in the West at roughly the same time as did the kinds of racializations necessary to conquer the “undeveloped” world, a process by which “young” races were re-imagined as objects of pedagogical attention and disciplinary violence. What if the second preceded the first? There’s a chicken and egg kind of problem here, of course, but a word like “racism” seems like much too blunt of an instrument to parse this class of distinction. What if the West learned to patronize, discipline, and dehumanize children because it needed to patronize, discipline, and dehumanize infantilized natives?

After all, the basic premise of both colonialism in Africa and contemporary development rhetoric was and is that modern society must be created out of the void, a worldview in which “tribal” society is not an alternative, but an absence. As James Scott illustrated (in Seeing Like a State), high modernist structures of feeling both flow out of and (in order to enable themselves) replicate and reproduce this premise. Thus, faced with a society “in need” of modernization, colonial and other modernizing powers seek to dis-imagine all the already existing social infrastructures, cultural traditions, and modes of governance, to perceive the other as, essentially, an absence waiting to be filled. What better model for such an unfilled vessel than a child? How better to imagine the “native other” as in need of guidance and discipline (by an older and more mature civilization) than by imagining him as a child? Yet no matter which is the chicken and which is the egg, the ambiguity of primitivism is that it attempts to undo the entire cycle, reflecting back that maybe it‘s the wisdom of children that the world needs, or at least a more humble sense of what adults really have to offer.


After all, the idea of the child, as an object of pedagogical attention and disciplinary violence, developed in the West at roughly the same time as did the kinds of racializations necessary to conquer the “undeveloped” world, a process by which “young” races were re-imagined as objects of pedagogical attention and disciplinary violence. What if the second preceded the first?

I suppose that dates could be determined and ideas traced through texts; at this point the literatures on the history of childhood and the history of colonialism and racism must be extensive. But why assume that one discourse must have been prior to the other and therefore in a causal relation to it? Why not allow for parallel developments in parallel arenas?

As for children’s literature, I assume that you’re talking about literature written by adults for children, rather than stories written by children. And that is rather different from the case you’re examining here. But, yes, the problem of properly valuing children’s literature is a real one. Beverly Lyon Clark has addressed it in Kiddie Lit:  The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America which I discussed here.

Finally, here’s what Swiss conductor Ernst Ansermet said about Sidney Bechet in 1919 when Bechet was touring Europe:

There is in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso who is, so it seems, the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues on the clarinet. I’ve heard two of them which he had elaborated at great length ... they gave the idea of a style, and their form was gripping, harsh, with a brusque and pitiless ending like that of Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto. I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself, I shall never forget it—it is Sidney Bechet. When one has tried so often to rediscover in the past one of those figures to whom we owe the advance of our art ... what a moving thing it is to meet this very black, fat boy with white teeth and narrow forehead ... but who can say nothing of his art, save that he follows his “own way,” and when one thinks that his “own way” is perhaps the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow.

Ansermet, E.-A. (1962 [1919]). Bechet & Jazz Visit Europe, 1919. Reprinted in Frontiers of Jazz. R. de Toledano. New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing Corp.: 115-123.

By Bill Benzon on 04/07/08 at 02:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aaron, I’d argue that “young English” is *not* always a pejorative description.  WC Williams quests after such a thing in *In the American Grain*, and Susan Howe has piggy-backed on Williams’s ideas.  American writing has often seemed like an attempt to perform a return to youth in the face of a corrupt, overripened English mode of discourse.

Of course, all of this hails back to Romanticism, to Wordsworth’s (or even Blake’s) redemption of the child, the natural, as the source of true poetry.  (Rousseau is the Big Daddy of this idea of childhood.)

I’ve written in my dissertation about Wilson Harris in the context of Johannes Fabien’s critique of anthropological time.  The historical novel has often figured the past as a particular place, a particular culture, to which “we” in the present can return by traveling.  As Conrad wrote, “This too was once a dark place.” The Thames for the Romans was the Congo for the British.  Harris’s novel *Palace of the Peacock* plays powerful games with this notion, fashioning a river in Guyana into a collage of every river journey in world literature. 

Carpentier’s *The Lost Steps* is also an interesting precursor here.

I’m rambling.

By on 04/07/08 at 02:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aaron, I’d also argue that colonialism and developmental rhetoric emerge out of what George Dekker calls the stadial philosophy of history.  The idea wasn’t that African culture was a void, a vacuum into which modernity must be blasted, but rather that Africans “now” are Europeans “then.” The debate is then whether Africans must be let alone to develop organically according to the predetermined stages of history, or whether Europeans could catalyze in Africa a leap from one end of the timeline to another. 

Cultural relativism and separatism emerge when different people are no longer mapped out on the same timeline but are also imagined to develop separately. 

The timeline at least assumed a common humanity, a common set of stages through which we all pass.  (The bildungsroman is the individual version of this larger cultural logic, which is why so many historical novels are also novels of bildung.) But once we challenged the timeline, we too often assumed that the differences between cultures were absolute, walled off.  Notions like “hybridity” were attempts to find a third space between timeline and separatist determinisms.

By on 04/07/08 at 02:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You wrote: “why assume that one discourse must have been prior to the other and therefore in a causal relation to it? Why not allow for parallel developments in parallel arenas?”

The point of the chicken and egg simile was exactly that: it doesn’t seem like arguing about causality is the right way to approach this kind of relationship; both seem to be in some measurable sense causing each other. And nothing in history ever seems to so simply cause another thing in the coherant ways that idealist history writing would like anyway. But when we take for granted that it is bad to be called “young,” we naturalize that development (taking childhood for granted) at the same time we de-naturalize the other, calling it “racist.” My point, then, is simply that rather than simply thinking about how “youth-ism” informs “racism,” we should also think about how the reverse occurs as well, how race is used to define the meaning of age (and, as Fabian notes, time). Both dynamics, in other words, instead of one or the other. In that sense, then, children’s literature (the textual sites through which adults construct notions of childhood, if pressed to define what I’m talking about) is already always about race, too, in a second order sort of way.

Thanks for the great Bechet quote. It seems part of the same archive as the Senghor poem I quoted (the archive of primitivism that sees African difference as *both* the way of the future and of the past, in a slightly incoherant way) and possibly also in response to the shocks of world war, in some sense.

By on 04/07/08 at 02:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m rambling too, of course, and your examples are useful. I take your point that “young” isn’t always pejorative, but that was partly my point too, except that when we’re talking about race, we tend to forget that it’s true. In other words, when a black man or woman is referred to as “boy” or “girl” it is pejorative and we take it as pejorative (because it is pejorative), but a side-effect of this is that the ambiguous ways that black writers (like Richard Wright and Peter Abrahams) actually self-identify in their writing as “black boys” gets flattened out (this is what I’m writing on next as a follow up to this post), and the utility of primitivism for black writers disappears (so that “primitivist” in the context of the Harlem Renaissance tends to be synonymous with sell out). That such writers tend to be attracted to “new world” rhetoric, also, should surprise no one. (I would also add to your list, by the way, the late Jay Fliegielman’s book *Prodigals and Pilgrims* on the ways that early U.S. American writers used Rousseau to think about authority, and his argument is also careful to acknowledge the ways that making the child into a kind of noble savage didn’t preclude adults having disciplinary authority over the child).

Also, you wrote “The idea wasn’t that African culture was a void, a vacuum into which modernity must be blasted, but rather that Africans “now” are Europeans “then.”” but I’m not sure I’d make so bold a claim. After all, colonialists were good at imagining whatever suited them, and the “noble savage” trope gave way to the “dark savage” somewhere over the course of victorian hegemony over Africa (see Patrick Brantlinger’s essay in *Race, Writing, and Difference*, for example) with powerful consequences, though both ideas are still kicking around in dialogue with each other (there are many colonialisms, and colonialist practice was often the product of conflict and compromise between different theorizations). While the noble savage myth is sort of a good child, who can grow p to be a good adult, the dark savage is something different, something absent of value in the way that “dark” is absent of “light” until Kurtz’ torch fills that void. The fact that Conrad ultimately decides that Kurtz, instead, gets lost in the void and Kurtz himself gives up the possibility of his earlier vision seems to signal an important difference to me (and indicate how he’s trying to navigate between different concepts of African otherness).

By on 04/07/08 at 03:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aaron, thanks for the thoughtful reply.  The binary between noble and dark savage would seem to map onto the binary between children as innocent or savage (as well as onto debates about mankind’s fallen nature or the whole Hobbes/Locke split on the nature of nature).

Do you think there’s a transition from noble to dark savage?  Or do the two concepts seem to call each other into being simultaneously?  As you point out, the rise of colonialism is coterminous with the rise of certain discourses of education.  Is education a process of channeling a child’s natural goodness or is it a process of taming a child’s natural savagery?  Is adulthood the end of innocence or the successful taming of the beast?

I’m interested in your idea that the “dark savage” implies the impossibility of development or conversion.  If the child (or the native) can only ever be tamed, at what point does taming become too time consuming, and exterminating the brutes a real option?  (Although colonialism, like Western education, realized that the *real* option for those who could never be more than barely tamed is forced, manual labor.)

By on 04/07/08 at 05:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m cautious with grand “transition” theses; it so often seems like a narrive crutch for criticism (some people have a key on their typewriter that reads “epistemic shift"). But there are definite points in colonial history where you can find localized shifts, tightly related to local history usually. Frederick Cooper in his big book, for example, brings out some of the ways that colonialists theorized race and education differently in the wake of the labor riots that filled the years 1936-39ish: in many cases moving away from a “dark savage incapable of being raised up” paradigm back to a renewed investment in the possibilities of modernization. He portrays it, I believe, as a calculated political choice that had wide cultural ramifications. And, of course, the original shift from Wordsworthian noble savagery to Victorian dark savagery seems very tightly connected to the scramble for Africa and a large scale transition from “legitimate commerce” to direct colonial rule.

The trick, though, is that these shifts seem much more closely related to the politics of labor management and the keeping of order in particular colonies. If I wanted (as I do, as it happens) to construct a narrative of how racialization proceeded in Kenya, therefore, I would use a different set of historical signposts and landmarks than if I was doing the same thing in, say, the Dutch East Indies. The key (imho) is that the shifts in race thinking have more to do with the status of their objects than the theorists themselves.

By on 04/08/08 at 12:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There was another dynamic at work in the 30s as well. With the rise of Nazism in Germany, it became necessary to create anti-Nazi discourse. One way of doing that was to put a positive spin on race in America. One product of this was the notion that jazz was America’s music and thus evidence of how good race relations were. David Howe talks about this in Swing Changes: Big Band Jazz in New Deal America.

By Bill Benzon on 04/08/08 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Cooper is talking specifically about British and French policies in Europe, and you put your finger on it: one of the tricks when talking about African writers from that period is getting outside of the box of “colonizer-colonized” and addressing the much more complicated international scene, where, as you suggest, another piece of the puzzle is the figure of race-relations in the United States. “America” was an important if not intuitively clear part of how people like Senghor imagined race (he likened Negritude to jazz on several occasions, uses the figure of the blues in his poetry, and so forth). But I would say the issue is a lot larger than simply crude attempts by the US government to instrumentalize jazz as propaganda, though, at least as African cultural production is concerned, especially since “America” wasn’t simply aligned with the US; the attraction of Cuban music for African musicians striving to sound modern in the 50’s and 60’s was quite important, and so was American jazz and rock and roll, but the picture isn’t really complete without both. And in neither case is the attraction of these musical cultures for Africans during and after decolonization reducible to anyone’s propaganda campaign.

By on 04/08/08 at 03:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re certainly correct about the African impact of Cuban music in the 50s and 60s. But the African absorption of African-American and Caribbean music is, of course, older than than. It goes back at least to the mid-19th century with minstrelsey and ragtime. I’ve seen one photo of Ghanian musicians from the early 20th century dressed in minstrel garb, including black-face makeup.

Propaganda is, at best, a secondary mechanism.

By Bill Benzon on 04/08/08 at 04:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Reminds me of Dambudzo Marechera defence against accusations that he was writing in the colonialists’ language rather than Shona or Ndebele: “I prefer to go along with Caliban’s theory: ‘”you learned me your language, now I can insult you in it.’”

By on 04/09/08 at 07:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Mostly, Luther’s already stolen my thunder with his comment about the Romantics, but your post also did make me think of phrenology and the various developmental theories of the eugenicists. One of the most compelling pieces of evidence for your excellent claim that race and maturity are complementary, co-eval discourses has to do with the supposed parallels between the physiognomy of the primitive and the child.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/11/08 at 12:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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