BLACK LIKE WHO? The Body In Question
September 17, 1991
Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just a punch, a kick was just a kick. After I studied the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is a punch, a kick is just a kick.
— The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee, the Chapter on °Tools”
The masters tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.
— Audre Lorde
The collective body — that phantasm with which I share blood, history, and hips — goes for a stroll. Ambling, lumbering, hobbling in a monstrous mass, more male than female, urban than rural, angry than forgiving, the CB is reminiscent of some creature from a ’50s sci-fi flick, bigger than a house. Familiar and endearing to some, scary to others, the body in question shall remain surnameless, has to, which is no doubt one reason Malcolm took on the X. But let’s give it a handle anyway, call it the “black community” this time around, knowing full well, though forgetting all the time, that there is more than one collective body roaming the American landscape at any given moment.
Anyway, it’s a humid day in Brooklyn, so the collective body decides to take in a movie. Terminator 2 has just opened on the Fulton Street Mall. The collective body (working the affirmative-action tip by bringing along Julian and Jeff, who are white) digs deep into its pocket for $7, the price of the ticket for a flick with a decidedly nonblack lead — though his name does seem to say “black,” two times.
Without a doubt, the Metropolitan Cinemas is one of the best places to see an action pic. The excellent “Awwh shit … Kill him!” call and response of the audience makes it moviegoing like it oughta be. But still, who couldn’t be thrown by the sight of an African American scientist, played by Joe Morton, being chastised (“It’s you people who have destroyed the world!”) and not scream “Whoa!” (“Who, black men?!!”), and then wonder why the collective body continues to root and respond after that moment. Is there some more compelling (though perhaps unconscious) logic than the simple “that’s entertainment”?
Something in Leonard Jeffries’s deployment of history suggests there is. And then somersaults to throw light on Jeffries’s own debacle. (And by debacle, I mean not only his delusions-of-personal-grandeur, pseudoscience, quasireligious filibuster, but the anxiety-driven, censorious paranoia with which its been met. Forget the Post and go directly to the more subtle Time piece by Lance Morrow and Thomas McCarroll, who use Jeffries to slip in a cursory critique of the “intellectually troubling” aspects of Afrocentrism, that new religion, which they intimate has no greater goal than to declare ancient Egypt as black and the rightful cradle of civilization.) Where Jeffries and T2 rebel John Connor meet is in their advocacy of history as something that “can be processed in a way to make it work for you.” And that is time travel, pure and simple.
Well, not so simple. Terminator 2‘s back and forth between the past and the postapocalyptic present is sexy but convoluted. Even so, the conceit of an adult hero reprogramming a cybertool to save his boy-self (making him more his father than his own father could be) is easily the most groovy metaphor for the work of postmodern history available. This is what history is like for the collective body, it is a tool to reengineer the past, get in there, fix it up, guarantee a future. (That some, like Jeffries, I venture, believe that the iterations have a natural stopping point, a “truth,” “our truth,” is a problem of a different stripe.)
With history conveniently declared deceased — an untimely death to say the least — even the less conspiracy-minded of us can’t help feeling that it’s been murdered in order to prevent us, the collective body, from resuscitating it, exhuming it, performing an autopsy, doing whatever it takes to get it to bear witness to the atrocities and triumphs to which it’s been privy. This is, of course, one of the aims not only of Afrocentrism, but of multiculturalism and feminism.
The collective body wants to know.
But what? Nothing less than its past, present, and future. The time when uttering a historical gem meant announcing a “fact” has slipped by. Not because events themselves are malleable, but because their “meaning” is, from here on out, painfully contestable. This is embedded in Jeffries’s rail as well (though his history is more divisive than a device). But there is something truer than all the bogus “frameworks” about sun and ice evoked to show people of color (and whites) that we’ve had our hand in this world from the get-go, which is that there is certainty no more.
We need look no further than Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka’s brawl over Malcolm’s legacy or Jeffries’s spiel on the dastardly deeds of a Jewish Hollywood, or even the uproar about Clarence Thomas and African American Republicans, to see that the collective body, the black community, hasn’t a cohesive identity. You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to know how difficult and painful questions of identity can be. If one lone subject spends a lifetime of language trying to represent herself in total, all the while slip-sliding over a world of communication, it’s not difficult to imagine the hell (and high points) a nation of millions wades through to express itself in one voice.
Was there ever a time when the collective body moved and spoke as one? Not likely. And is that one-hand, one-heart feeling desirable, or even possible? Racism and inequality make it feel thus — make it seem necessary, but would it be so in a world of undifferentiated difference? A world where race is neither the “Master’s house,” nor a tool to dismantle it. There is a tremendous push (ours) and an opportunity (let’s not forget the pangs of a hungry marketplace) for more representation, more film, more images, more, more, more. With this lurch forward comes a flood of anxiety as well. Competition for one: If individual blacks can only speak for the collective body, then exactly how much of it is there to be carved up and sold off? But also a more visceral fear: Will we become slaves to the collective body? Forced always to speak for it and to its needs? And scared to death that if we don’t, we won’t be allowed to say anything; or if we misrepresent it for the sake of ourselves we will be expelled, we will not exist? We will be “Toms,” or “house negroes,” or “not black,” when clearly we remain in our skins.
It’s not a surprise to find film in the midst of this growing discussion of the collective’s identity. Film because it feels extraordinarily powerful — all that money, and narrative, and pleasure — and because historically it is how America looks at itself. While Leonard Jeffries was not wrong to assail “Sambo images” of black folk in early Hollywood films (though black film historian Donald Bogle has done better work of it in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, locating the subversive in the submissive, finding the residue of the black actors’ resistance to demeaning roles), he couldn’t have chosen an odder time to do it, this being the year of black film and all. In the recent past Spike Lee’s films have been treated as something of a hand-held mirror by the collective body — many of us drawn to his images less like Narcissus than like people who have seldom seen themselves — the cinema has now become a house of mirrors.
New Jack City, Chameleon Street, Jungle Fever, Boyz N the Hood, True Identity all speak of, to, and/or for the collective body. With every viewing, the black community gets an inkling of its shape, its texture, even its age and gender (mostly young, mostly male these days). Indeed many of the African American films of the past year have done the work of retooling, demonstrating how that activity creates new, compelling difficulties for the collective body. In short: WHERE ARE THE WOMEN??!! From House Party to To Sleep With Anger to Mo’ Better Blues to Boyz N the Hood, the sons are working overtime to secure the place of the father, and in doing so, themselves. If ever there were a symbolic effort to counteract a sociological assertion — that of paternal abandonment — it has been these films, which depict a world of fathers and sons. Need I add, this does not take care of all of us who partake of and make the collective body’s life 24-7. (Word to the brother: I will not have some 23-year-old man-child in LALA land telling me I must forego a career to be a good mother, that it’s my responsibility to the embattled black family, just because he made a moving film.) If one were to seize the entrepreneurial moment, the T-shirt would read: IT’S AN OEDIPAL THING. YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND. This is less a complaint, more an observation about the failure inherent in casting the collective over the individual or mistaking the individual vision as the collective reality. If we Americans weren’t going through such a xenophobic moment in relation to French thought, I would suggest that when discussing black film, we put a slash through the “black” just to make a distinction between a tool with a handle and … us.
That an essay about the identity of the black community can teeter just this side of being a film piece is a testament to our living in a uniquely American moment, when political activism, liberation activity, is more often than not bound up with questions of representation. When the real lives of people are substantiated by their reel lives. The U.S. is at once a semiotic semiotic semiotic semiotic world and a material one; a place where we become the actors, the acted upon, and no one in particular.
No doubt, our bodies are shot through with meaning, riddled with definitions and qualities not of our own choosing. Sometimes the most positive thing to do in that instance is to choose wholeheartedly the meanings, embrace them dramatically, turn the joint upside down. Hip-hop does this aggressively. Film bobs and weaves. Identity politics … well, at its best, it’s like social work at its best, a strategy employed on the way to a different place.
The collective body is at a weird stage. The question is, Will it become the cyborg that we construct, tend, love and hate, breathe life into, and can’t bear to part with (though its existence may doom us ultimately)? Or will we let it pass when the time comes? The fights over who will speak, what will be said and recounted, the “real” blackness suggest that the moment of relinquishing will not be an easy one. But in avoiding it we confound ourselves, throttle our artists, repress our meaning as people who, unlike the collective body, have proper names and rich personal histories. What exactly is the purpose of a politics based on racial identity, any identity? To prove the other guy wrong? Make him yell uncle? Or to deliver the subject from the jaws of a limited/limiting discourse into a meaty narrative, however painful, joyous, and lousy, of her own?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 19, 2020