“Cry” is to be a series of essays and ruminations on the state of America. At present they are still in embryonic form. The whole idea behind these sketches is to articulate certain problems pertaining to America and American culture that very few people wish to face up to.
The Emasculation of the American language (2014)
In some instances you are probably better off being a stranger in a strange land. For people can’t read you in those disgustingly familiar ways that they do in your home country; of course, this can very well be a danger in itself, since the hosts of this strange land can read all kinds of things into you that have nothing to do with who and what you really are. And many of these hosts can and will take their cues from clueless and bigoted American tourists, as well as internet trolls and American mass-media. Or perhaps the cues they take will leave them in doubt once they interact with you.
Well, at least they–the foreigners–are more willing to interact with you than your countrymen. Your countrymen already have you pegged, so to speak; they “know” you before they even sense your presence; their minds are made up in advance about who and what you are as a marginalized person within their own society. In this instance, of course, I am referring to myself as an “African-American.”
As a “black American” in the world, particularly in America, you are already “known.” This supposed “knowledge” of who you are (on their part) naturally precludes any hope of genuine communication with your countrymen. Most of them, before you even open your mouth, before you move a finger, have decided that you are an enemy or, at best, an interloper with dubious intentions. No amount of deep-hearted communication with these other people can really strike at the core of their deep-seated and deep-rooted doubts and suspicions about what YOU are, as a person.
In fact, you find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time trying to convince these Others that you are even a person at all. Because of these false and deep-rooted preconceptions about your person, you find yourself endlessly reminding people–sometimes, those people closest to you–of who and what you really are. Naturally, these other people are disinclined to believe a single word you say. The best you can get out of these people is a half-hearted nod and an empty “yes, I understand.” And if you find it difficult to believe them when they say they “understand,” it’s only natural: their reassuring voices are belied by the hysterical anger they show you whenever you fuck up, however lightly. You know in your gut that in spite of what you tell them and how reassuringly you do so; in spite of any “gifts” you may offer to remind them of your humanity, or that you are indeed “one of them,” in “their camp,” waving “their flag” and marching to the beat of “their” own drums, you will never be one of them.
Of course. It is human to make mistakes. But the outlandish way in which your so-called peers, your so-called family, your so-called wife or husband or best friend–your countrymen–react when you, out of simple human failing, cross the line: well, it’s simply their way of telling you that you are something of a child, somehow–how else can one say it?–less than they.
Your peers will tell you it’s not what you think; they would not dare judge you as inferior to them. After all, they know you and you know them. You work with them, bleed with them, laugh with them, sleep with them, die with them. They lash out at you because (if one were to believe them) you keep on crossing the line. However, you have also observed your peers crossing that very same line time and time again. How do your peers react, then? Not so harshly, one observes, to great dismay. A lot more forgiving and understanding. More winks and pats on the back. It’s okay, Justin. No problem, Dave. We all make mistakes. To err is human.
Better yet, observe how those same peers react when the question comes down to color, class, race, nationality or sexual preference. The very first thing you see is what your peers refuse to see, what they refuse to even mention: the question of color. It trumps every other consideration, up to and including that big bugaboo class and the slightly smaller bugaboo of sexual preference. Very often, they refuse to mention it not because they won’t, but, surprisingly enough, they can’t; they lack the vocabulary to deal with your reality. In fact, they, your so-called countrymen, lack the vocabulary to deal with you–which is tantamount to saying they lack the vocabulary to deal with themselves.
One need only to look on YouTube and see the horrendous videoclips; see what is happening to American society; see what is happening to Europe, to Africa, the Arab World, to Asia and Latin America. Taken collectively it looks like a prelude to a global war. In fact this prelude often makes the opening salvos of World War Two look extremely tame. Historians have often referred to 1939 and 1940 as the “Phony War,” or sit-down war. How on earth will historians refer to our time period when, or if, we survive it? Not a second goes by in which another insufferable ethnic conflict erupts in some benighted part of this monstrous so-called “civilization,” and not only in America: now, the Algerians are pummeling the Malians and Burkinians in Ouargla; now there is a bloodbath between Turks and Kurds in Hamburg; now the Senegalese and the Nigerians chop each other to pieces in Omonia Square; now there is a brawl between Tajiks and Russians somewhere in Moscow and St. Petersburg; now “hard-working” Albanians brawl with “lazy” African-Americans, who raid grocery stores and quicky-marts and shopping malls and fight or get fought by Mexicans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Palestinians, Chinese, Cambodians, poor whites, Italians, Jews, and so on and so forth.
Apparently, this is not even the tip of the iceberg’s tip. It is happening right now, as you read this, in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit (itself a code-word for “niggers”, as if “niggers” shut down the auto industries in Michigan and not the Fords), Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, New Orleans. The entire planet is springing leaks on every known shore.
My reaction to all this–especially the unceasing ethnic conflicts in the U.S.–was and is one of resigned disgust. They’re better off simply blowing up New York, I find myself thinking too often. Hell: nuke Chicago. Or at least run a few more airplanes into the city center, loaded with atomic bombs. It’s 2016,* and yet the same poisons that contaminated this country in 1916, or 1816 or 1716 or even 1616, still exist. Even the presence of a so-called “black” president has not only not changed the sociopolitical and socioeconomic game in America–it has merely reinforced this sickening game. My gut reaction, then? Go fuck yourselves. If you assholes can’t get it together by now–if you are still falling for all that old “divide and conquer,” British colonial honky bullshit, you might as well hang it up. Forget it, you all failed. This so-called “Great Experiment,” this thing you call the “United States of America,” needs to be scrapped; it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
So what, then? If one has to start over, how do you start? With the language, with the American vocabulary.
You can’t change anything if you are unable to articulate your reality. Of course, this also means being able to psychologically face your reality. Facing, as opposed to accepting American reality, because there is nothing in the current American reality that should be accepted. The reality is that America is, simply put, a zoo, and we are the animals, shitting all over ourselves while those outside the gates–those with the money and power–feed us some fucking bananas every now and then. Meanwhile they come and go, laughing at us and pointing to us, and then they go back to their fine homes while we stew in our own shit and claw our eyes out for scraps of rotten meat.
The zoo-keepers don’t like it, of course. We all stink, so they imagine; think they are doing us a favor by cleaning up our shit; they think we need to stop yapping at them. They should have never locked us up in cages to begin with. But there’s one problem with this “zoo” analogy is that the zookeepers are generally white men, or, like Eric Holder or Barack Obama, colored men appointed to the highest levels of zoo-maintenance. Maybe Obama really is the Head Zoo-Keeper, and I’m all wrong. But who ever keeps the zoo–black or white–does not own it. The owners, whoever and wherever they are, are white men.
So what does all this have to do with the impoverishment of the American language? Simply this: our intellectuals (if you can call them that) speak and write as if our collective misery does not really exist.
America, by and large, is a horrible place to live in. There are exceptions, and distractions. But take them away, rip the scales from your eyes, and you will find a country which is simply quite unendurable. If our “intellectuals” have the gumption to to acknowledge that human suffering actually exists in the “Greatest Nation on Earth,” they–with precious few exceptions–place the blame of that suffering on those who are suffering, of course. You should get a job and stop feeling sorry for yourself. Man up. Stop being sexist and check your privilege. Stop having children out of wedlock; respect your body; stop selling drugs; respect other people; learn to read, etc., etc., etc. This language, aimed not just at the “Urban Community” (read: niggers and spics), but basically at anybody black in the US (and in slightly rarer cases, poor whites, browns, reds or even yellows) is not designed to enlighten or encourage them to lift themselves out of the American social mire: it is designed specifically to chastise them as a parent would scold a naughty child. It is designed to maintain the centuries-old chasm between speaker and listener–the speaker being the colonizer and/or his mouthpiece and the listener being the colonized/native. For the language these mainstream intellectuals speak to us is the language of Colonialism: EUROPEAN Colonialism.
It is the language of a paternalistic oppressor so smug in his or her attitudes towards his or her “inferiors” (and so clueless and alienated from the reality of the oppressed) that he or she really has no clue at all that he/she is an oppressor. He/she thinks this is perfectly normal. This means that the speaker may not even harbor any ill intentions towards the person she is speaking to, for she does not know of any other way to talk to him. In fact the intellectual bankruptcy of US culture was carefully wrought; the bankruptcy of the American language was carefully wrought over a number of decades, if not centuries. The American language, in its intellectual manifestations, has a curious way of being overly analytical while simultaneously saying little of substance. It is a curious achievement. America is not the only nation which has managed to pull off this strange feat, yet it strikes one as rather odd why in a land that prizes itself on “freedom of speech” do the inhabitants insist upon not speaking.
Or maybe not, when one gets to know Americans well. Until very recently Americans have said what they wanted to say–which means they really didn’t wish to say anything pertinent to their miserable lives. Anything that would have shattered the little bubbles they lived in (their American “dreams”) might have completely thrown them off balance. Until very recently the American who found a place to stand in his/her country would patronize those beneath him as “losers,” knowing full well how difficult it really is to obtain wealth in America but refusing to admit it, even to himself. (Art Blakey, jazz drummer extraordinaire, had gone on record years ago as saying America was the greatest country in the world because, in his words, “you can be anything you want.”) In recent years, however, there has been a substantial change in attitude on the part of Americans towards their country. There is substantially more anger and outrage at American incompetence in politics, economics, culture and at American society in general. The rank-and-file American has come to identify a common enemy that holds him in check, that takes the bread from his mouth, that poisons his water and threatens to push him out into the street: the One Percent. That One Percent, by and large, is white and male. And yet in spite of this sudden sociopolitical epiphany among the rank-and-file, the level of good old fashioned American prejudice–towards blacks, especially, and now towards Muslims, transgendered persons and so-called “illegals” (Latinos)–has remained consistent.
But not only that. The racial animosity has found a new lightning rod in the rise of Donald Trump and the alternative-right–primarily made up of lonely, disaffected and broke young white men who, according to Republican strategist Rick Wilson, “masturbate to anime” and “are not people who matter in the overall course of humanity.” The same could have been said, of course, about Hitler’s Brown Shirts in Weimar Germany: Berlin considered them a laughingstock. Yet it only took a few years and some careful political maneuvering (and a lot of street brawls) for them to get inside the Reichstag–and burn it to the ground. Rick Wilson is sadly mistaken if he thinks these cockroaches will simply stick to whacking off over Chun Li.
The well-off white American (or even non-white American) won’t admit that he/she is essentially a settler, a colonizer or, at best, simply doing the settler’s dirty work. Like every other settler who has ever existed, these American “settlers” are filled with obscene myths about the people whom they either keep in check or help to keep in check. They use the exact same language. The stinking “native quarters” or “casbahs” of French Algeria, of British India, Burma, Dutch Indonesia or French Indochina, Tangier, Belgian Congo, the “townships” of Apartheid South Africa, etc., etc. are more or less the same as the “banlieues” of contemporary Paris or the “ghettos,” “projects,” “barrios,” “Chinatowns,” “trailer parks” and “reservations” of the USA. The “American” uses precisely the same language to refer to the “ghetto” and the “urban community” as did the pied-noir of Algeria used to refer to the Casbah or “native quarter”. It is a “jungle,” a “zoo,” a “no-go zone.” (The latter is used very commonly here in Berlin to refer to the Turkish/Arab/African “jungles” of Wedding, Neukolln and above all, “Kotti” or “Kottbusser Tor.”)
And in these no-go zones, these jungles and human zoos, we see the obvious. The niggers, to paraphrase Frantz Fanon, beat each other up. They have a need to see blood. And when they kill, they don’t just do it half-heartedly; they do it with panache. They get angry when you look at them funny or pull a knife or a gun when you step on their shoe, even if by accident. The towelhead reaches for his gun whenever he sees his daughter dating outside the community. The fucking bodies pile up, and everyone is left shaking their heads in disgust and disbelief. Those people, say those on top. There’s simply no understanding why they do these things. Perhaps violence, as Ta-Nehisi Coates once insinuated (albeit with tongue in cheek), is encoded in the very DNA of these “black males” or “Turkish males” or “African males” or “Hispanic males.”
Yeah, sure. We get that; we’ve been getting that all of our lives. The question of violence is one that’s continually turning over and over in our skulls like the hamburgers we always eat. But why?
Colonialism, writes Frantz Fanon, “tends to turn every colony into a jungle, where the only law is that of the knife.” The contemporary European, as well as the American–smugly dogmatic and ignorant of history and even language, would undoubtedly wax indignant at such a comparison. Today’s European would have you believe that colonialism was indeed horrible but it is a thing of the past, and the failures of Africa and the Middle East are due to the moral, psychological and perhaps even ingrown failings of Africans and Arabs themselves. America, on the other hand, is not even a colony. We have a black president, a healthy black elite, and black entertainers are among the most influential trend-setters in the world; in fact not an hour passes on this planet where no one is talking about the fandangos of Jay Z and Beyonce, or discussing Bill Cosby’s sex/drug scandal, or Chris Brown and Rhianna, or Kim Kardashian and Kanye West–or, needless to say, The Most Powerful Man in the World Himself, President Obama. The Americans are very slick con-artists; they have devised an ingenious (or, perhaps not so ingenious and more than a little obvious) mass-media smokescreen–a very gaudy and flashy one–with which they present themselves to the world.
They are so slick that they fool many people into thinking Kanye West is a rank-and-file African American, when he is not. They also fool many people into thinking that the Trinitarios, the Crips, Bloods and La Eme are rank-and-file black and brown Americans. They are not. Most of us are simply trying to put food on the table, send our kids to school or even keep from starving. But the individual stories of black and brown people trying to stay afloat in a hostile American sea aren’t very exciting, not to mention very sexy. They also aren’t very funny. Ergo, these stories can’t be packaged and sold to a jaded American public, which insists upon being amused and titillated by the dysfunctional lives of certain blacks and browns. The Great American Smokescreen of lies, distortions and stereotypes is there for a reason, of course. “No true account of black life can be held, can be contained, within the American vocabulary,” James Baldwin said in his last interview.
But there is hope. Thanks to the internet, it is much easier to look behind that smokescreen than ever before. The year after Obama was elected President, the writer encountered an Arab in Berlin who had already decided that the President was, in his words, “scheisse.” Naturally I still imagined that Obama was still one of the good guys and I took offense, seeing this outburst as yet another manifestation of Arab racism. But I was wrong. “Obama,” said the man, who was working in a schwarma shop in Mitte, “is just a puppet of the war machine.”
And this man had no interest whatever in immigrating to America. Unlike the 1980s–when MTV, and Reagan’s glib smile, greasy hair and cheap rhetoric fooled much of the world into thinking America was some special, magical sort of super-Oz–outsiders can see the reality of America from YouTube clips and decide for themselves whether or not New York is really worth it.
And not only outsiders. For the first time ever the American has allowed a few scales to fall from his eyes. It took 9/11 and the combined disasters of the Bush and Obama regimes for them to see that no, they will not become millionaires if they work hard enough and save their bread. No, they will never land the girl of their dreams and live in the house of their dreams in the cleanest neighborhood in town, because the neighborhood is now a gated community, the house is unaffordable and shoddily constructed, and the girl you dreamed of really wants a sugar daddy or a bad boy, or has herpes or HIV, or is a lesbian or, better yet, imagines herself to be one. Now you find yourself jumping through all sorts of hoops to get a fat, sloppy bar girl to even smile at you, or find yourself sending out resumes by the tens of thousands and getting no offers save for a temp job at Career Blazers or, worse, at McDonalds. You are stuck in your parent’s basement or a homeless shelter or at the Y. Worse yet, the niggers, or the Ay-rabs, or the honkies, or the spics, or the kikes are out for your ass. ISIS wants to eat your children. Or just perhaps, it’s the One Percent, The Matrix playing every fucking body in the world like a chess piece, keeping everyone divided so they can continue to grab everything–your money, your job, your property, your possessions, your woman, your man, your car and eventually, if you are not careful, your mind: that, before they take your corpse.
Now, everybody knows it; everybody can see massive fraud taking place in this country on every conceivable level, right down to our very bedrooms. Unfortunately the knowledge of such fraud has led to a kind of outrage that, all too frequently, can not be tempered with reason. I am not suggesting that one be so stupid enough to be “reasonable” in the face of rising fascism, cultural decadence and hyper-militarism. Very often “reason,” when it pertains to blacks, is simply a phony appeal on the part of white liberals for blacks to shut the fuck up and keep grinning. (That is what they mean when they talk about “dignity” and “perseverance” in the face of racism.) What I am suggesting is that this new anger towards a failing West is–as usual–striking old targets. And that the solutions for this failing West are, once again, just the same old shit in new diapers.
And naturally, in such a chaotic political situation, any hope of you communicating your own reality to your fellow countrymen would be dashed from the start. It would be darkly humorous to imagine a Jewish academic writing Dear Gentile Germany from the depths of Buchenwald. But one can easily imagine Germany’s reaction. It wouldn’t have been funny. In fact, it wasn’t.
*I finished this essay today but the bulk of this was taken from a notebook I kept in 2014.