"Disturbing the Peace: What Happens to American Studies If You Put African American Studies at the Center?": Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, October 29, 1997
I want to call your attention to the major contradiction of my standing before you as the president of the American Studies Association, a contradiction that has made it very difficult for me to write and give this speech: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of an American studies faculty. I was not trained in American studies methods, and have been only peripherally involved in American studies programs; nor did I read, until I had to write this speech, any of the traditional American studies texts. I am now and always will be, primarily an African-Americanist. Three years after the uprising in Detroit that whites called a riot and blacks called a rebellion, I became part of the small band of scholars who, in 1970, inaugurated the first Black Studies program at the University of Detroit. Like American studies we were committed to interdisciplinarity: there were four full-time faculty in literature, history, sociology, and religion; the three part-time faculty were in journalism, music, and art. While those in American studies were lighting out for the territory, on the pioneer trail from East to West, Black Studies was following other itineraries: the triangular slave trade, the underground railroad, and the Great Migration, the latter two on a north-south axis leading directly to issues of what José Marti [End Page 1] called, in his claims for hemispheric unity, Nuestra America--"Our America." While American studies scholars were still immersed in Virgin Land, The Machine in the Garden, and Turner's frontier thesis, we were reading Lerone Bennett's Before the Mayflower, Malcolm X's speeches, the essays and stories in Black World, John Hope Franklin's From Slavery To Freedom, and discovering Charles Chesnutt, Gwendolyn Brooks, Chester Himes, James Weldon Johnson, LeRoi Jones, Alice Childress and Frances Harper. In the early 1970s, black scholars in these programs were doing a great deal of recovery work. Many of the texts we now consider classic African American texts were being brought back into print in the 1970s, but their life in print was erratic and unpredictable, and there was almost nowhere to go for critical commentary. It was an exciting and historic time, and I wish I had taken better notes to preserve for posterity everything that was happening.
Looking at my journal entries from 1975-1976, I was amazed to see what being at the Center for Black Studies entailed:
February 1975: helped students plan a dramatic performance of the literature of the Harlem Renaissance for Black History month; went very well; April: organizing a black alumni group to support the Center; May: up to the University of Michigan for the first meeting of the Michigan Black Studies Association; can we all get along? September 1976: freshmen orientation--prepared a slide show on black studies program for incoming freshmen; October: going up to Jackson State Prison with Gloria House of Wayne State to teach a class on black literature; October: invited Elder Stacks, a Sanctified minister to come to English 280 class where he gave a very moving religious testimony; now trying to get students to understand this voice in Baldwin's novel.
Besides teaching a full load, fighting to increase the pitifully small number of black students on campus, negotiating with the traditional departments for their reluctant acceptance, we were under a great deal of pressure, in the Black Power climate of Detroit, to be politically involved; you had to read Mao and Marx and Malcolm; you had to be "in struggle." I remember one meeting at Wayne State, where I went to hear the fiery Ron Dellums speak, that featured the entire spectrum of black political thought in Detroit: there were Black Muslims, Black Panthers, Pan-Africanists, black cultural nationalists, black Christian nationalists, Marxist-Leninists, and Communists; I was there as a closeted integrationist. In my journal I reported coming home that night and becoming deeply involved in cleaning my house so I could restore [End Page 2] my sense of order. At the University of Detroit I was expected to be the resident race relations expert. I was once asked (by the Dean of Students and the Director of Campus Ministry at U of D) to organize a conflict resolution meeting between the black and white women in the dorms. I was teaching the largest literature classes in the English department, but students could take my courses only as electives; and there was a clear sense from traditional departments that eventually this "black stuff" would all blow over. I was writing reviews and articles for Black World magazine, which meant I was being judged on one front by the black cultural nationalists; I was working with and publishing with The Feminist Press, which meant that I was being read and judged by white feminists, and I was trying to get tenure at a Jesuit university. 1 In comparison to this experience, "publish or perish" sounds like a Yoga mantra for relaxation. Anyone who thinks that ethnic studies and multiculturalism require delicate negotiations, might take as a model the political minefields we in Black Studies were required to dance through in the 1970s.
Somehow, disturbingly, American studies was not part of the amazing renaissance in African-American culture in the 1970s. Many in ASA were aware of such ferment, of course, but when the Radical Caucus of ASA was formed in 1969, there were, according to president Allen Davis, "no Afro-Americans among the small group that gathered at Toledo to talk into the night about transforming American society and organizing a radical American studies community." 2 The extraordinary experimental work that was being done in African American studies--the loosening of disciplinary boundaries, opening up the traditional disciplines to fields like folklore, music, and art as part of a synthesis of disciplines; the study of literature with a strong emphasis on history and the social sciences, its theorizing and historicizing issues of race, its multicultural perspective; and its critique of nationhood (so critical to the American studies project)--should have made, but did not make, African American studies and American studies natural collaborators, fraternal, if not identical, twins.
I came to American studies via the 1985 American Studies Association conference in San Diego, urged there by my friends Richard Yarborough, Nellie McKay, Robert Hemenway, Paul Lauter, and Lois Rudnick. Because of the aggressive outreach of a newly-tenured young professor--Richard Yarborough, who was appointed by program chair Martha Banta--nineteen of the 500 participants were African American, [End Page 3] nearly all of them friends of mine. In memory I have reconstructed this entire meeting as an idyllic gathering of 500 scholars (compared to this year's 2200) comfortably and inexpensively housed in the two-story pink sandstone bungalows of the Bahia Resort Hotel. A single room was $60.00, a double, $64.00. A total of ten meeting rooms, all overlooking either the Bay or the Santa Barbara Cove, accommodated the sessions. There was one restaurant, enclosed (at least in my memory) by a vine-covered trellis where everyone met for meals and for long, leisurely discussions which extended into dinner conversations, much of this collegiality created by the isolated location of the Bahia Hotel, which was so far from any urban center or any other diversions that we were forced to talk to one another. The Women's Breakfast, described in the program as a time "to renew friendships and meet new colleagues" and "to raise issues of concern," was held under a large yellow and white tent looking out at the inlet where the boats were docked. The breakfast talk, "Feminism in the Eighties," suggested a fluid, dynamic, and evolving organization, responsive to change as expressed in the theme of that year: "Boundaries of American Culture." More than anything else, however, it was Michael Cowan's brilliant and inspiring presidential address, called "Boundary As Center," that pointed to the progressive directions of ASA. American studies, he said, achieves its progressive character not only by resistance to dominant structures but also by staying in touch with its wild, rebellious, iconoclastic, and inventive impulses. 3 Could it be that I had found another home? I was on a panel called "Black Identity in the Era of the Nadir: Afro-American Perspectives From the Turn of the Century" with Dickson Bruce and Richard Yarborough giving papers, Lawrence Levine chairing, Robert Hemenway and I as the co-commentators. The question-and-answer period lasted until lunch, with a long and vigorous debate over the value of dialect poetry. I should probably remind you that this session and several others took place on the Upper Deck of the Bahia Belle, a riverboat that actually cruised once a day around the cove. With the soft, warm waves of Mission Bay lapping up against the Bahia Belle, there was an Eden-like quality to the whole event which should have cautioned me to resume my normal level of healthy double consciousness.
Even a superficial comparison of the our 1997 convention and the 1985 one reveals that all was not right in Eden. All major keynote speeches in 1985 were delivered by white speakers. In 1985, out of 96 [End Page 4] sessions, only nine were devoted to African American culture; there were nine panels on women and gender studies, seven on popular culture, six on ethnic studies, three on Hispanic Studies, three on native American, one on Asian American; on gay, lesbian and bisexual topics, zero. Though there were sessions such as "Ethnic Studies and American Studies" and "American Women's Narratives," and "Folk Traditions in the Definition of American Ethnic Boundaries," there was no mention of race as a category and no African American representation, more clues that paradise was problematic. Few of us knew at the time that behind the scenes, Martha Banta was carrying on the good fight for a more inclusive program despite pressure from some who felt that "some new names and faces on the 1985 Program Committee [might] constitute a threat to all that has come before. . . ." 4 There were other undercurrents of which I was unaware which would have made me highly suspicious of ASA as a potential home. I was reminded by George Lipsitz that the conference site where we were experiencing such pleasure was exactly fifteen miles from the U.S.-Mexican border. Many of the people who prepared our food and cleaned our rooms came across the border each morning; others lived in lean-tos and in caves in canyons in order to stay on the U.S. side of the border to work. In none of my pastoral recollections is there a single memory of anything being said about the political context in which we met. Nor was I aware of the absence of Chicano/Chicana scholars, but it was such a stunning absence that José Limón, the chair of the Minority Studies Task Force, was appointed to explore why there were so few Chicano/a scholars involved in ASA. José's report, which was based on an informal survey of Chicano/a scholars, was that they did not consider ASA a "home." Although there were signs of change at the next ASA in 1987 in New York, the most important of which was Richard Yarborough's critique of the racial politics of the American Quarterly, the real change for Chicano/a studies came in 1988 when "Ethnic Studies" was made the focus of the 1988 convention, and in 1992 at Costa Mesa when José David Saldívar, as a member of the program committee, demanded and received a pledge from ASA that the recruitment of Chicano/a scholars be more than a one-shot deal. 5 At that 1988 convention Ramón Guttiérrez appointed several Chicano/a students to the Student Committee. By 1997, it was possible for Vicki Ruiz to declare that ASA was the "home" of choice for most Chicano/a scholars. The 1985 meeting was also the first year there was a [End Page 5] significant number of Asian-American scholars at ASA, partly because of the location, partly because of the outreach of president Martha Banta. In 1988 Asian American scholars negotiated to have an official relationship between ASA and the Association for Asian American studies, an affiliation which galvanized them to organize a program slot at annual meetings, and in that year they began a series of workshops focused on pedagogy that have grown in size and importance. None of these changes happened of its own accord, but at each critical moment in the history of ASA, an individual has pushed for change, and the organization, with support from the presidents and the executive boards, has responded. The pushing, protesting and organizing of African American, Chicano/a, and Asian American scholars from 1985 to 1997 has resulted in a sea change in the involvement of scholars of color in ASA. Indeed my own presence here as the president of ASA, the first African American ever elected to this office (John Hope Franklin was appointed in 1967), indicates the numbers and influence of people of color in the organization, and it also indicates the recognition that ASA needs us, but it is not in itself an example of institutional change. Echoing Frances Aparicio and Johnnella Butler, and the many others who have been talking to me over these past few weeks, I want to restate that being a part of an American studies association is a contradictory experience for those of us in ethnic studies. As Steve Sumida says, "It's less like a home and more like being in a dormitory owned and operated by powerful others, but where you get a nice room and good treatment." It may be a very positive space for us as individuals, or as a space for theorizing about culture and power, about ethnic studies, about comparative ethnicities, but, structurally, ethnic studies and scholars of color in those studies are contained and limited within ASA by what José David Saldívar calls "The Ghost of Classic American Studies Past." If ASA finds itself now on the threshold of change, it is because of the efforts of individuals with extraordinary singularity of purpose, and I want to use this moment to push ASA along in the inevitable direction of that change.
For a moment I want to return to my comparison of 1985 and 1997, more specifically to the ways we can see change represented in these two programs. A 1985 panel on "Intellectual History, Modernism, and Democracy" featuring Henry James, Henry Adams, and John Dewey, would now almost certainly have to include figures like W. E. B. Du Bois [End Page 6] and José Marti, and Takao Ozawa, a Californian, a man modern enough to appeal to the Supreme Court for naturalization who was turned down because he was, in the words of the Court, clearly "not Caucasian." Would a panel like "Death, Sexuality, and Power in Nineteenth Century American Literature," which in 1985 included papers on Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Winslow Homer be able to exclude Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, and Charles Chesnutt? Wouldn't it also consider for inclusion the deaths of native Hawaiians in the U.S. takeover of Hawaii in 1898? One of the most striking things about scholarship as it has developed since 1985 is that in 1997, categories like race, class, gender, sexuality and language cross-cut, intersect, and impact one another, and so it is impossible to to keep these categories separate. Scholarship emerges in layers and intersections. Formerly "marginal" topics are now mainstreamed, and to good purpose: why not a panel on self-help groups; don't they tell us as much about actual daily American life as many of the myth and symbol and great authors-great themes approaches? "Central" topics are now studied through paradigms and contexts which erode the very idea of "centrality." That U.S. imperialism in Teddy Roosevelt's revisions of the Monroe Doctrine is considered alongside U. S. racialism in the construction of the Japanese-American detective, Mr. Moto, and John Dewey is theorized in relationship to the New Orleans waterfront are not merely signs of greater openness but of a political development towards greater democratization and egalitarianism. There is, in American studies, no such thing as an obscure topic; nothing remains untheorizable, unworthy of examination, and, though there are some who find this the problem with our intellectual lives, I want to celebrate the exuberance, the wit, the intellectual inventiveness and--yes--the soulfulness, evidenced in this year's panels as the source of great pleasure we can expect to experience over the next three days and as a prefiguring of, a model for, institutional change in ASA.
Placing this heavy emphasis on institutional critique and institutional change has, I want to suggest, always been central to African American studies. This methodological development stretches back to Carter G. Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass and Frances Harper, and numerous other black intellectuals who have, over the decades and centuries, identified white supremacy as a systemic and central feature of the American experience. Indeed, this is one of the [End Page 7] most important aspects of what it means to put African American studies at the center of American studies and to use this paradigm as a starting point for reading the contemporary scene.
My own grounding is that of a literary and cultural critic, and at this point, I want to continue by putting into play three texts which to me embody the struggles of ASA and which suggest institutional and structural ways to reconstruct American studies, or at least ASA. The three texts are Wedding Band, a 1964 dramatic production by Alice Childress; Lone Star, a 1996 film by John Sayles, and Octoroon, a brand new 1997 CD by Laura Love.
I begin with Wedding Band, a play about an interracial relationship, which was first produced in 1966 at the University of Michigan when almost no white theaters would touch it. 6 As a progressive playwright working in militant leftist circles in the 1940s and 50s, Childress was intent on examining social and political issues in her plays, specifically the effects of racist laws, and was often criticized by people who felt that to even talk about segregation and interracial conflict in those days was risky. In Wedding Band, which is set in South Carolina in 1918 in the midst of World War I and the flu epidemic, the central story is a love affair between a black woman and a white man who, because of the laws of miscegenation, cannot be legally married. Even when Joseph Papp produced it at the Public Theater in the 1970s, Wedding Band was considered a controversial text--by blacks as well as whites. Surprisingly, in 1997, nearly everyone who read an early draft of this speech warned me that this text was too "explosive" to use an an example. All the more reason, I thought, for me to keep it.
The play opens just after the main character, a woman named Julia Augustine, decides to move from an isolated place in the country, where she has been able to live discreetly with her white lover, Herman, whom she cannot marry because of southern Jim Crow laws. Julia is a seamstress without family; Herman, a baker, a German-American, is tied to his mother and sister out of misplaced loyalty and financial debt. The day of Julia's move is also Herman and Julia's tenth anniversary, which they celebrate with one of Herman's fancy wedding cakes and a gold wedding band which he gives her on a chain since she cannot wear it publicly. Julia's decision to move into a black community where the back porches and back yards of several houses connect to one another brings Julia together with three other black women and their families: Mattie and her daughter Teeta and her lover October who is away in the [End Page 8] merchant marines; Fanny, the owner of all these little backyard houses; and Lula and her son Nelson, a soldier on leave from the army. The move to this backyard where the houses and the lives are contiguous is a shift in location that signals both Julia's need for community and an unconscious desire to confront the politics of her interracial love affair. It is a move that replicates my own move to challenge the institutional politics of ASA.
Once Julia begins to feel more a part of this black community, the issues of their racial histories that have remained submerged for ten years in the seclusion and isolation of the country are forced to the surface, and Herman is forced to confront history on Julia's terms. The ten years of Herman and Julia's union can be described with a phrase that was once used to describe American studies, as "a past built on silences." 7 When Julia begins a sentence with, "When white-folks decide," Herman wants "white" deleted: "People, Julia, people." When she reminds him that his mother once accused him of loving a "nigger," he chastises her for remembering something that was said seven or eight years ago. Herman wants only "to leave the ignorance outside," not to allow difference to threaten their love. His folks, he says, cannot be blamed for slavery or segregation; they are struggling German-American immigrants, plain working-class people, looked down upon and exploited by elite whites. His father laid cobblestone walks, brick by brick, until he could buy the bakery where Herman struggles to make a living: "What's my privilege . . I'm white . . . did it give me favors and friends?. . . nobody did it for me . . . you know how hard I worked. We were poor. . . . No big name, no quality." Although he later admits that his father joined a white terrorist organization, in Herman's constructions, their histories are essentially personal stories, disconnected from race; but over the years Julia has become more and more disturbed by the pretense that their love can transcend racial history.
In this new community Julia and Herman are forced to encounter the public racial history they have tried to evade; more importantly, she experiences communal resistance and racial anger that make such evasions impossible. When she reads to Mattie the letter from October about his encounters with racism, she hears Mattie's angry, defiant, vernacular response: "Tell 'em you my brown-skin Carolina daddy, that's who the hell you are. Wish I was there." Lula tells her about the time she got down on her knees and played the darky act in a segregated courtroom to keep her son Nelson off the chain gang. As one [End Page 9] unschooled in the ways of racial resistance, Julia responds naively: "Oh, Miss Lula, a lady's not supposed to crawl and cry." And Lula answers with the voice of racial authority: "I was savin' his life." Then, in the most charged encounter between Julia and this community, Nelson comes home smoldering in anger over being attacked by southern whites for wearing his uniform, remembers Julia's white lover, and narrates a bitter parallel text of interracial love: "They set us on fire 'bout their women. String us up, pour on kerosene and light a match. Wouldn't I make a bright flame in my new uniform?"
These encounters give Julia a racial voice and racial anger which she uses first to challenge the silences Herman has imposed on her. When Herman asks Julia if she blames him for her people being in bondage and being killed, she tells him, "Yes. . . For the one thing we never talk about . . . white folks killin' me and mine. You wouldn't let me speak . . . Whenever somebody was lynched . . . you'n me would eat a very silent supper. It hurt me not to talk . . . what you don't say you swallow down." For Herman the subject of racial violence belongs in the past tense: "My father," he says, "never hurt anybody." Julia answers in the present tense: "He hurts me." As these experiences begin to shape her voice and her consciousness, Julia dreams of dead slaves, "all the murdered black and bloody men silently gathered at the foot-a my bed," and she wishes they could "scream and fight back." That dream allows her to acknowledge a suppressed family history--her slave grandmother, her father's unpaid labor as a skilled brick mason building mansions for whites, her kinship with the black and bloody slaves, with black women raising the food and making the clothes that helped build the south. She imagines the whole Carolina earth nourished with the heart's blood of her ancestors. In this newly freed voice she rejects Herman's description of her as "not like the rest," and claims her own identity: "I'm just like all the rest of the colored women. . . ."
Here in the community, Julia has begun to learn the language and the style of resistance. Mattie is defiant and proud. Lula is politically shrewd. Nelson is angry and bold. Fanny, though she is often obsequious to whites and sometimes disparages blacks, considers herself a "race woman." Together they perform communal acts. They go to church together. They share the daily humiliations and indignities of racism. When they try to get help for Herman when he falls ill with influenza, they do so fully understanding the consequences of the authorities discovering a white man dying in a black woman's bed. [End Page 10] When Julia remembers an old Carolina folk dance and performs it with Lula, it is the sign that she too shares in their community--in those indignities and in their strength. In the final moments of the play, when Julia knows that Herman is dying of influenza, she gives her wedding band to Mattie, saying, "You and Teeta are my family," signifying her union with the community of people she has chosen as kin. Keep in mind that this play is about these small gestures. There are no heroes, no martyrs, no revolutionaries. These are the average people Childress always writes about. They do not transform anything. There's no triumphant civil rights victory on the horizon. But the black people in this community know what Herman has been free not to know--about slavery, about segregation, about legal and military injustice. They also know how resistance is crafted in many small, seemingly insignificant ways, and they know how to keep that critical, unsparing gaze of resistance turned on the institutions and structures of oppression.
There are many ways this play functions for me as a prophetic allegory of our current social reality in ASA. Wedding Band is valuable because it centers our attention on race politics and demands that we develop that "second-sight" necessary to critique our institutional lives. Most immediately for me, Childress's play glosses the situation of minority scholars within our association, and challenges us to realize the importance of the transformation which Julia experiences upon moving from isolated countryside into a black community. As John Wideman points out in an article in the current issue of Essence, "There have always been doors open for selected minorities." "You are not like the others," Herman says to Julia. But we come from communities. We come with communities. As isolated, "selected minorities" we can pretend to be safe, to protect ourselves and others from having to recognize and confront the realities of the "apartheid mentality" that Wideman says still "reigns in this country." Wideman is writing about the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, on the way Emmett Till's body, displayed so horrifically in Jet magazine, continues to haunt his dreams as an icon for the way this society uses the bodies of young black men and women "to justify the increasingly brutal policing of the racial divide." 8 In community, we all come with, belong to, Emmett Till and all those other bodies that are designated inhuman, undesireable, and disposable.
Perhaps I can put in concrete terms what all of this means to me in terms of our association by referring you to the session called, "Prison [End Page 11] For Profit: Crime Prevention or Social Control?" which I organized as the president of ASA. 9 It is the criminal justice system, more than any other, that reminds us that "An apartheid mentality reigns in this country." But let me immediately universalize this example and cast it as an issue relevant to all of us who do academic work by calling your attention to a recent New York Times article on prisons which showed the direct correlation between the loss of money for universities and the increase of funding for prisons. The state of California is a particularly alarming and instructive case. In the last twenty years, California has built twenty-one prisons and one university. The share of the state budget for the university system in California has fallen from 12.5 percent to 8 percent, while the proportion for corrections has risen to 9.4 percent, up from 4.5 percent, an amount identical to the loss of university funds. In this twenty-year period, California universities have had to lay off 10,000 employees, many of them professors; in that same period, the number of state prison guards has increased by that exact same number: 10,000. 10 Wedding Band, with its insistent attention to institutionalized inequality, reminds us that we are all under assault at the institutional level--as the substitution of prisons for universities demonstrates--and thus we need to focus and respond institutionally.
What could/should this mean for ASA institutionally? What sort of cultural, ethical, and epistemological paradigms might support and enhance the development of ASA as an organization committed to institutional change, struggle, response, liberation? To explore this topic, I want to turn now to my second prophetic allegory of institutional change, John Sayles's 1996 film, Lone Star, which is set in the present in a fictional south Texas town called Frontera (that is, border). 11 The primary focus of the film is on three generations of white sheriffs--Charlie Wade, a brutal racist; Buddy Deeds, whose legendary status rests on the fact that he has been able to turn multiculturalism into profit; and his son, Sam Deeds, whose mission is to uncover the truth about and debunk the mythology of his father. I have deep reservations about the ending of this film, which I think retreats from the film's central vision of progressive social change, but I want to begin by describing the film's quite wonderful vision of society first as "a damn menudo" (which is very much like the metaphor of "gumbo stew" that Marlon Riggs uses to represent cultural complexities in Black Is/Black Ain't), 12 and then as a series of border crossings, which becomes the film's more progessive metaphor. As prophetic allegory, Lone Star does [End Page 12] three things: first it shows the system of white supremacy as a system in decay. Second, it projects a forward-thinking, but not utopian, vision of new multicultural social institutions--society as what one character calls "a damn menudo." Finally, like Wedding Band, Lone Star insists that personal cross-cultural experiences only become comprehensible and liberatory when they are connected to a relevant institutional history. In constructing his cinematic menudo and his border crossings from a wide range of inter-racial and inter-ethnic exchanges, Sayles's film may translate into useful lessons about the institutional life of our association. Many of these exchanges focus on people of color who share dialogues unmediated by white characters (though there's not enough of this), and none of these exchanges feature white characters as dominant. Sayles's menudo represents the multicultural moment as a messy, contentious process in which the resolution of disputes is not as important as the freer play of long-silenced voices.
Throughout the film, comments by white characters make clear that as Mexican-Americans come into power, whites are losing ground in Frontera. As the bartender of the local white bar tells Sam, using the language of the Alamo: "You're the last white sheriff this town's gonna see. Hollis retires next year, Jorge Guerrero's gonna take over. This is it, Sam, right here. This bar's the last stand." But Sayles is not so much interested in the decline of the numbers of whites as he is in probing and demolishing the heroic mythology behind the figure of Buddy Deeds, who has been enshrined in popular memory as creating and presiding over a period of harmonious existence among the Hispanic, Anglo, African American and Native American people of Frontera. By the end of the film we learn that the misdeeds of Buddy Deeds include purchasing cheap lakefront property by forcibly evicting the Hispanic residents; using convict labor for his own benefit; maintaining a clandestine, adulterous affair with a Chicana, Mercedes Cruz, and setting her up in business with money he embezzled from the county. The perception of Buddy Deeds as the noble, fair-minded Robin Hood is completely undermined by these discoveries, but it is a testament to how well Buddy was able to work the system that almost everyone in Frontera--black, white, and Chicano--perceives him as a man of integrity.
Several characters, including Buddy's son Sam, the current sheriff of Rio County, learn that it is difficult but also liberating to expose the truth about white domination. Sam refuses to stop his investigations despite warnings from people in power and despite the nearly universal [End Page 13] belief in the goodness of Buddy Deeds. His investigations, which uncover more and more about the misdeeds of Buddy Deeds, involve many border crossings, some literal, some psychological and metaphorical, and each border crossing requires the relinquishing of power. As Sayles says about this film, "When you cross and go into some kind of new territory, you don't necessarily have the power that you had on your side." 13 Sam discovers, for example, that he cannot remain as sheriff because that would require his father's style of corruption. He cannot lie and say the town needs a new jail just to satisfy the construction business and get himself re-elected. But border crossings are also liberating. Sam experiences a kind of psychological release and emotional growth which is reinforced in parallel plot lines involving the Chicana woman, Mercedes Cruz, who owns the town's main restaurant, and the African American lieutenant colonel, Delmore Payne, a spit-and-polish Army man, when they abandon assimilationist ideas and accept the challenge to embrace--as Julia does in Wedding Band--racial and ethnic histories long suppressed or denied.
With the cultural myth of white supremacy under this powerful critique, what comes increasingly into view is Sayles's vision of south Texas as the multi-racial, multi-ethnic world he says it has always been. Black, Hispanic, and Native American cultural threads are woven--and interwoven--so pervasively into the texture of the film that visually, aurally, and linguistically these cross-stitchings become the cultural norm that frames the action of Sayles's characters. I want to bring three of these scenes into the foreground of my argument here. For shorthand purposes I will call them a) "Rock-en-Español": the jukebox scene; b) a black-Seminole menudo; and c) border-crossings at the PTA. The "Rock-en-Español" scene takes place when Sam and Pilar, now rekindling their earlier romance, are dancing after hours in the Mexican restaurant owned by her mother Mercedes Cruz. Sayles takes great care to foreground the soundtrack for this dance sequence by showing Pilar walking up to the jukebox and deliberately selecting a record that she has heard many times over the years. We see the record click into place, and we hear the opening bars to Ivory Joe Hunter's "Since I Met You Baby," evoking the very essence of 1950s rhythm-and-blues romance. When the vocal arrives and Pilar and Sam begin to dance, it is not Ivory Joe Hunter we hear but Freddie Fender singing "Desde Que Conozco," a rock-en-Español cover of the original R&B tune. 14 Of course, this is [End Page 14] a minor example of cultural exchange, but as an example of linguistic menudo, it shows an African-American-Chicano cross-cultural sharing, that at least on the level of art-music, represents a first step.
Sayles also takes great care in representing the history of African American/Native American/Mexican interaction through the story of Otis Payne, the proprietor of Big O's, the town's only black nightclub and the only place in town where blacks feel welcomed. Otis is also the father of Lieutenant Colonel Delmore Payne, from whom he is estranged, and the grandfather of Chad, who is trying to reunite his father and grandfather. Otis, we discover, is the curator of a Black Seminole museum which he has set up in a back room of Big O's In his efforts to re-establish contact with his grandfather, Chad finds his way to the museum, and his fascination with the memorabilia his grandfather has collected for years allows a conversation between grandfather and grandson which Sayles uses to explore the Black Seminole story at some length. Looking at a picture of one of the Black Seminole heroes, John Horse or Juan Caballo, Chad asks his grandfather, "He a black man or an Indian?" Otis's response is the longest uninterrupted speech in the film:
O: Both. He was part of the Seminole Nation got pushed down into the Florida Everglades back in pioneer days. African people run off from slave holders, hooked up with 'em, married up, had children. When the Spanish give up Florida, the U.S. Army come down to move all the Indian people to Oklahoma. Couple of 'em held out--that man, John Horse, his friend Wildcat, another fellow named Osceola--put together a fighting band, held out for another 10-15 years. Beat Zach Taylor and a thousand troops at Lake Okechobee.
C: So they stayed in Florida?
O: One night they packed up, rode out to Mexico, then went to work with General Santa Anna down there. After the Civil War, they came north to Texas, put up at Fort Duncan, and the men joined up what was called the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts. They were the best trackers on either side of the border. They'd chase after bandits, rustlers, Texas rednecks, Kiowas, Comanches.
C: They fought against the Indians?
O: Just like they did in Mexico.
C: But they were Indians themselves.
O: They were in the Army--like your father.
* * * *
C: How come you got into all of this? [End Page 15]
O: These are our people. There're Paynes in Florida, in Oklahoma, Piedras Negras.
C: So I'm part Indian.
O: By blood you are. But blood only means what you let it.
These multiple identities that Big O narrates seem to keep multiplying. And there is no attempt to evade the problematics of the history of black Indians fighting other Indians on the side of a colonizing army. I envision the characters in Big O's history as changing as fast as the film's frame will allow and producing a perfect cinematic description of what Lisa Lowe means when she says we are "formed by a multiplicity of intersecting and conflicting determinations."
The final aspect of Sayles's film which I want to comment on is the way it finally questions its own assumptions about the possibilities of achieving a cultural menudo without political change. In Lone Star, cultural traditions and styles more often collide rather than intersect and interweave; and what I love about Sayles's depiction of this process is that he doesn't allow differences of language, politics, historical vision, etc., to dissolve in a soothing movement toward consensus; he presents the multicultural moment as one of tension, struggle, discomfort and disagreement. But Sayles also makes clear that these collisions occur because those in power are protecting an unacknowledged canon, an institutional identity with a set of privileges which insures their cultural and/or political hegemony. Consider the way conflicts are left hanging when a PTA group, riled up by Pilar's version of Texas history that gives a central role to Mexicans, assembles to discuss the teaching of Texas history. With a huge map of the state in the background, the conflict rages about whose version of the past will be taught to "our children:"
First Anglo woman: Just tearin' everything down. Tearin' down our heritage. Tearin' down the memory of people who fought and died for this land.
Chicano man: We fought and died for this land too. We fought the U.S. Army, the Texas Rangers. . . .
First Anglo man: And you lost, buddy. [Other voices: "Yeah."] Winners get the braggin' rights, that's just the way it goes.
Second Anglo man: People, people. I think it would be best if we don't view this thing in terms of winners and losers.
First Anglo woman: Well, the way she's teaching it, it's got everything switched around. I was on the textbook committee and her version is not. . . . [End Page 16]
Second Anglo man: We think of the textbook as a guide, not as an absolute.
First Anglo woman: It is not what we set as the standard. Now you people can believe whatever you want, but when it comes to teaching our children. . . .
Chicana woman: They're our children too, and as the majority in this community, we have the right. . . .
First Anglo man: Well, the men that founded this state have the right to have their story told the way it happened, not the way somebody wanted it to happen. . . .
Danny: Hey, hey, the men who founded this state broke from Mexico because they needed slavery to be legal to make a fortune in the cotton business.
Pilar: I think that's a bit of an over-simplification.
First Anglo man: Are you reporting this meeting, Danny, or are you runnin' it now?
Danny: Just adding a little historical perspective.
First Anglo woman: Oh yeah? Well, you call it history, I call it propaganda. Now I'm sure they got their own account of the Alamo on the other side, but we're not on the other side. . . .
Pilar: There's no reason to be so threatened about this--[voices protesting]--Excuse me. I've only been trying to get across part of the complexity of our situation down here: cultures coming together in both negative and positive ways.
First Anglo woman: If you're talking about food and music and all, I have no problem with that, but when you start changing who did what to who--
Second Anglo woman: We're not changing anything, we're just trying to present a more complete picture.
First Anglo woman: And that's what's got to stop!
Second Anglo woman: Look, there's enough ignorance in the world without us encouraging it in the classroom.
First Anglo woman: Now who are you calling ignorant!?
On one level Sayles seem content to accept the messiness of this exchange and to leave things in a state of disarray, allowing messiness as an inevitable part of the cultural menudo, a social reality grounded in conflict among equals. But in the visual construction of the scene, Sayles enacts another, more insistent theme: that liberation requires border crossings. Those who refuse to cross ideological borders sit with arms locked across their bodies and their bodies locked rigidly in their chairs. For some of the whites in Frontera, it's okay to celebrate ethnic cultures through art and music, but it's not okay to challenge traditional disciplines and institutions. Lone Star's border crossings suggest [End Page 17] another metaphor, one used by Patricia Williams in a recent Nation column which cautions us about celebrating cultural difference without pushing for change. We can, she says create "whole skyscrapers of racial differentiation, and still end up with 'whites' living in the penthouse, the 'one drops' just below, and those with buckets of black blood in the basement or out in the street." Williams would replace that penthouse with ground-level structures in which everyone has to look every Other straight in the eye. 15
My third "prophetic" text is Laura Love's 1997 CD, Octoroon, which I chose because it captures the exuberance and pleasure these changes and exchanges can also express. 16 I first heard Laura Love one Saturday morning on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition. A Nebraska-born, Seattle resident, Love's infectious humor was evident even when she was talking about growing up in foster homes after her mother was hospitalized for mental problems and her father deserted her and her sister. Trying to account for how her parents ended up in Nebraska, she says, "perhaps through the underground railroad, . . . a lot of [black people] on their way north just stopped in places like Nebraska and just said, 'well, I'll take my chances with the Indians. I know what the white folks are like'." As a light-skinned black girl, almost but never quite accepted in either black or white cultures, she seemed irresistibly drawn to and responsive to what she calls "all these different ethnicities" which eventually produced the musical menudo she calls Afro-Celtic: "I like those mournful kinds of northern-European-derived melodies, you know, Irish, English, Scottish, then the Diaspora, and, I guess, the Appalachian. I've always loved Appalachian--the high lonesome, bluegrassy, mournful, minor-key white soul music. . . . And I also like Afro-pop rhythms, and African American rhythms, and R&B. And so it's a kind of a combination of like maybe hip-hop and Appalachian or something. It's like Hippalachian, or something." 17
Love uses all of these musical styles in Octoroon to represent her political and social concerns which range from racism and sexism to homophobia and ecology. "Octoroon," the title piece, is set on the auction block where the woman to be sold is told to be "entertaining," and "sexy," so that "you will bring a high price/and the man will treat you nice," though in the end,"soft brown hair will bring you trouble/you could be his daughter's double." "Bad Feeling," counters this bartering of black flesh with a black jeremiad that begins with the image of a plantation "raining brown arms" and ends with plantations and bandanas [End Page 18] and everything else blowing sky high. Then, giving in momentarily to despair, the speaker in the song called "All the Pushin'," wonders if there is any possibility of changing things: "all the pushing I can do . . . will not move you. . . all the walking . . .running . . . stretching i can do . . . will not reach you". . . "all the sewing . . . taping . . . mending i can do/will not fix it." But Love's exuberant and indomitable spirit expands when she is questioning and resisting the forces that seek to contain her spirit. In "I Am Wondering" she questions everything--from why a suit and tie "don't fit like a girdle," to why a tree which feels sacred to some, looks to others like a dollar. In the final image of the song, she rejects what she considers a retrograde spirituality in which a "long-haired white guy wearin' a diaper" is the official representative of sanctity. For her, she says, as she claims her own definition of spiritual ecstasy, "I feel sanctified when a big butt/ crew-cut gal says i'll keep her/i feel sanctified about that." And then on "If I Knew," a piece which suggests that she is just beginning to imagine where this transgressive questioning might take her, she wishes she could find a place for herself and and her lover where they could take the cats, fly away, and "you and i could/dance slow, people there won't stop/and stare when we hold hands in the open air--oh yeah." Since this album is entirely in the tradition of call-and-response, there is always a conversation going on between the singer and her lyrics and her instrumental accompaniment, the guitar becoming a second voice that refuses to allow her to succumb to self-pity or disillusionment. The lyrics question with irony, irreverence and humor, while the pulsing, driving rhythms underneath the poetry provide the uplift and sustenance that allow the speaker to talk about and deal with pain, the whole coming together to show that, in spite of the circumstances, change is possible. When I listened to this CD for the first time back in June, I knew I would find a way to use it in this speech. With all the bad times in her life--from parental abandonment to prison--Love constructs a liberating consciousness, a sense of humor in being unconventional, a wild joy in resisting boundaries and crossing borders. I felt there ought to be some way for those of us in ASA to incorporate this kind of exuberance and joy and delight into our own journey toward change. Ideology should have its pleasures.
So now I have these three texts in play, three examples of prophetic allegory to help us think about developing our own models for institutional change. As I said earlier, I think the film shies away from [End Page 19] its own political vision at the end. After spending so much time and energy recovering the complex histories of the region and developing a progressive model of cross-cultural exchange, it seems like a collosal failure of nerve to have the Chicana history teacher say in the final line of the film, "Forget the Alamo--all that history." Nevertheless, I want to claim Lone Star as well as Wedding Band and Octoroon as prophetic allegories of forthcoming institutional change. Like the heterogeneous world of Frontera, like Julia's move from an unracialized life in the country, and the multi-ethnic music of Laura Love, the ASA has moved from its de-racialized past, from its token invitations to scholars of color, to being nothing less than the principal gathering place where ethnic studies constituencies meet each year in our own border-crossing dialogues. So far, this has been primarily a demographic shift occurring over the past decade or so, based on the heroic efforts of individual scholars. Quantitative change can eventually produce qualitative change, and we need to think about what it will mean qualitatively for the institutional life of our association to embrace--not just cultural menudo but border crossings--as a reality. First we see in the "messiness" of the film and the play that it's okay to float conflicts without a neat resolution and that nothing changes until someone is willing to "disturb the peace." Second, just as these texts celebrate and promote black/Hispanic dialogue, black/white dialogue and black/Native American dialogue, we can do much more to promote and celebrate connections with ethnic studies constituencies at an institutional level. I can imagine a greater commitment from ASA to collaborate and exchange with ethnic studies groups--African American, Asian, Latino, Chicano, etc. We can certainly begin to use our resources to support ethnic studies programs with the same energy, emphasis, and financial support as have been given to traditional American studies programs and departments. We do international work that connects us globally, but right here at home we could establish the same kind of alliances with African American studies associations, with Chicano and Native organizations that we have with the Association for Asian American Studies. And on the international front, we have connections with Japan through JAAS, Canada through CAAS, to European American studies associations but no significant relationship to Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa. The ultimate sign that institutional change has moved ASA towards a true border crossing, of course, will come when we declare the abolition of minority scholar status, when ethnic studies [End Page 20] people and projects are not seen as "them," "that," and "those people," when we end whatever traces there are in ASA of what George Lipsitz calls "a possessive investment in whiteness," and most importantly, when we all feel, as Lerone Bennett once said, honored and privileged to be identified with the oppressed.
I find myself at this point looking back to the civil rights movement of the 1950s, perhaps because the issues and problems of that era are still so very much with us, and because I am still inspired by people like Septima Clark, one of the grass-roots organizers of that movement. She says in her autogiography, Ready From Within, that the measuring stick she used to evaluate her work was whether or not it produced change at the local level and "wonderful thinking." Clark says she never worried about whether her experiments would be successful because, she says, when people were "ready from within," they would always produce this "wonderful thinking." And it is on this note that she ends her autobiography: "I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift, and this has come during my old age." 18
"Wonderful thinking" is something we can find bursting forth on every page of the 1997 program, but the fundamental point I have been working towards in this talk is that we must imagine and strive to ensure that "wonderful thinking" is a phrase that also applies to the life of ASA as an institution. I see it already in our commitment as an organization to planning our conventions with a solid affirmative action policy in place. In 1997, a mandatory pre-condition for ASA to contract with a hotel is that the sponsoring hotel must have its own fully-implemented affirmative action program, including significant minority representation in the workforce, a progressive policy on unionized labor, and easy access for people with disabilities. I see "wonderful thinking" in the steps that ASA has begun to take in the direction of reaching out to Ethnic Studies programs. Affiliation with the Association of Asian American studies is evidence of a commitment to the deeper project of reconstructing the definition of America--and not merely "expanding" or "including" so-called others. Wonderful thinking also exists in the die-hard commitment to constitute ASA's Program Committee and Standing Committees with scholars of color in positions of authority.
These examples of wonderful thinking at an institutional level inspire and energize ALL of us because they make ASA an organization [End Page 21] that is, at its best, what Myles Horton, Septima Clark's colleague at the Highlander School, refers to as "yeasty" and what I call the organization's vitality. Horton uses "yeastiness" to mean the potential of a small group to "multiply themselves and fundamentally change society." 19 I imagine ASA becoming more than ever a place that encourages, promotes, and supports--consistently and enthusiastically--scholarship which moves us toward institutional change. I imagine ASA as a place in the forefront of American society in the sense that here you have a chance to step outside of the general apartheid mentality that continues to dominate our social life in one form or another. ASA, ideally, will be a place where the denigration that one feels as a person of color, as a poor or disabled person, as a non-native speaker of English, does not obtain. The changes that allow me to think and talk like this are, as I have been arguing, the product of heroic individual efforts, but our challenge now is to institutionalize inter-ethnic, inter-racial, multi-cultural paradigms; our challenge is to do whatever is necessary to make ASA a liberated and liberating institutional space. In jumping up from quantitative to qualitative change, we experience wonderful thinking as personal, individual satisfaction, but--and this is the note I want to end with--we also nurture the vitality of the intitution itself. Septima Clark says that wonderful thinking is rooted in chaos, and that chaos is a gift. I say that when we embrace this ennabling chaos, whether we identify it as the "trouble" that Alice Childress makes her characters face in Wedding Band, the "border crossings" that John Sayles maps out in Lone Star, or the "multipicities of ethnicities" that permeate Laura Love's music, we put ourselves in synch not only with the best ideals of our organization, but also, as Septima Clark suggests, with the inexorable currents of history. "Things will happen," Clark says, "and things will change. The only thing really worthwhile is change. It's coming."
University of Maryland, College Park
Mary Helen Washington is a professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park. She is the editor of Black Eyed Susans/Midnight Birds: Stories By and About Black Women (1980); Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women 1860-1960 (1987); and Memory of Kin: Stories About Family by Black Writers (1990).
This is a revised version of the speech that was presented as the Presidential Address at the American Studies Association's annual meeting, 29 Oct. 1997, in Washington, D.C.
I am indebted to many people for their collaborations, consultations, editorial comments, support and encouragement. Because of the thirty-plus hours I spent talking on the phone to colleagues all across the country who sent material, read drafts, and/or made suggestions, I felt confident that this highly collaborative process gave me the voice to speak for many constituents in ASA. My thanks go to all of these collaborators: William Andrews Frances Aparicio, Ponchita Argieard, Allen Bailey, Martha Banta, Johnnella Butler, Kandice Chuh, Thad Davis, Phil Deloria, Doris Friedensohn, Clara Sue Kidwell, Nicole King, Paul Lauter, José Limón, Amy Ling, George Lipsitz, Lisa Lowe, Kevin Meehan, Alvina Quintana, José David Saldívar, Steve Sumida, John Stephens, Cheryl Wall, and Richard Yarborough.
Special mention goes to Kevin Meehan. We spent many hours in the summer of 1997 looking at Lone Star and listening to Octoroon, sharing ideas. He suggested the term "prophetic allegory." Together we drafted the first versions of the sections on Lone Star and the final call for institutional change. He read and commented on many of the early versions of the speech, and this final version was made possible by that support. For all of his help and encouragement, a sincere thanks.
1. Black World, edited by Hoyt Fuller from the 1960s to the 1970s, out of Chicago by Johnson Publishing Company.
2. Allen F. Davis, "The Politics of American Studies," American Quarterly 42 (Sept. 1990): 364.
3. Michael Cowan, "Boundary As Center: Inventing an American Studies Culture," Prospects 12 (1987): 1-20.
4. Martha Banta, Letter to Robin Brroks, 20 Mar. 1985.
5. Richard Yarborough, "The Treatment of Minority Issues in the American Quarterly, American Studies Association Annual Meeting, 22 Nov. 1987.
6. Alice Childress, Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story In Black and White (London and Toronto 1973). Wedding Band was brought to off-Broadway by Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Public Theater on 26 Nov. 1972.
7. Alice Kessler-Harris, "Cultural Locations: Positioning American Studies in the Great Debate," American Quarterly 44 (Sept. 1992): 305.
8. John Edgar Wideman, "The Killing of Black Boys," Essence 28 (Nov. 1997): 124.
9. The participants on this panel were Angela Y. Davis, Professor, History of Consciousness, University of California, Santa Cruz; Stephen Donziger, Editor, The Real War on Crime: The Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission; Jerome Miller, Director, Study of Institutions and Alternatives; Eddie Ellis, President, Community Justice Center, Harlem; and Katheryn Russell, Professor, Department of Criminology, University of Maryland at College Park.
10. Fox Butterfield, "Crime Keeps On Falling, but Prisons Keep On Filling," New York Times, "Week in Review," 28 Sept. 1997, 4.
11. John Sayles, Lone Star (1996).
12. Marlon Riggs, Producer and Director, Black Is/ Black Ain't, (California Newsreel, 1995).
13. Joan W. West and Dennis M. West, "Interview" with John Sayles, Cineaste 22 (1 Dec. 1996).
14. "Rock-en-Español" is the process of taking popular American songs and translating them into Spanish, somethimes as direct translation, but more often using the Spanish to supply a different twist or an ironic play on words.
15. Patricia J. Williams, The Nation, 25 Aug.-1 Sept. 1997, 9.
16. Laura Love, Octoroon (Mercury Records, 1997).
17. Scott Simon, Interview with Laura Love, National Public Radio, Weekend Edition, 28 June 1997).
18. Septima Clark, Ready From Within: A First-Person Narrative, ed. Cynthia Stokes Brown, Trenton, N.J., 1990) .
19. Myles Horton, The Long Haul: An Autobiography (New York, 1990), 57.