Crucial Silence

Amy Howard, University of Texas at El Paso


James Baldwin tells the story of being arrested in Paris for allegedly stealing a single hotel bedsheet. After spending several weeks and Christmas Day in a cold prison cell, Baldwin was brought to trial. As he was acquitted for the petty crime which he did not commit, he heard “great merriment in the courtroom.” Baldwin said, “I was chilled by their merriment even thought it was meant to warm me. It could only remind me of the laughter I had often heard at home, laughter which I had sometimes deliberately elicited. This laughter is the laughter of those who consider themselves to be at a safe remove from all the wretched, for whom the pain of living is not real…it was borne in one me that this laughter is universal and never can be stilled” (Baldwin, 161). These essays seek to hear and resolve what produces the fake laughter Baldwin describes. This laugher echoes in American society as well as through much of the American literary cannon. Jess Row, in his book, White Flights: Race, Fiction and the American Imagination asks, “What would it mean to accept that America’s great and possibly catastrophic failure is its failure to imagine what it means to live together?” Row, a key influence in this thesis, focuses on deconstructing and reckon with white identity in his essays and in his novel, Your Face in Mine. The novel follows the life of the main character, Martin, a white man, who undergoes racial reassignment surgery. The novel is satirical and critical of privilege and artistic blindness. Row doesn’t assume his race and his body do not matter in the art that he creates. In his 2019 collection of essays, White Flights, Row proposes a new way of writing called “reparative writing”. Row does so, “semiseriously, because it can’t exist until it exists in a community, as a process of dialogue and exchange; and it can’t exist initiated by me alone (or, necessarily, me at all)”. That point should be emphasized, the reparative community is incredibly small or as Row notes, essentially non-existent. Row assumes reparative writing would have tangible implications such as literary activism and resource redistribution. Row also argues that reparative writing means the white writers consider that racism is her “proximate cause of disorder and distress”. Row acknowledges the “reparative work the white subject can undertake in response to racism is…poorly understood and understudied” and that “white American writers are almost never asked to bring their own sadness or their own bodies into play when writing about race or racism; their dreams, their sources of shame, their most nightmarish or unacceptable or crippling fantasies, or their feelings of sadness, paralysis, isolation, or alienation”. Toni Morrison described the issue through a conversation on binaries. She wrote about colonial American’s insistence on defining personal freedom on the backdrop of slavery. To be a free and independent American required an alternate category of enslavement for the idea of freedom to become altogether real. Morrison showed that this dichotomy persists in the white writer’s mind and art in her work, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination. In her review of American literature Morrison argues that there are endless tendencies for “Americans [to] choose to talk about themselves through and within a sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence”. Morrison argues that the consciousness of the white writer uses the enslaved other to free oneself and give the mind license to move freely in the white writer’s “playground of the imagination”. Morrison concludes that “images of blackness can be evil and protective, rebellious, and forgiving, fearful, and desirable- all the self-contradictory features of the self. Whiteness alone, is mute, meaningless, unfathomable, pointless, frozen, veiled, curtained, dreaded, senseless, implacable”. There seems to be two literatures in the United States. The racialized authored by people of color and the largely deracinated literature authored by white writers. It isn’t that race isn’t on the minds of white writers, but the topic is avoided. For starters, if a white writer digs into the issue with any depth or genuine curiosity she will soon be met with difficult feelings or to use Toni Morrison’s phrase, one’s own mute meaninglessness. It is a feeling of shame one would want to escape. Or it is the question of, “What if anything could a white American possible add to the conversation on race in America?” There is nothing to add per say other than sorrow, a reparative stance, and actual reparations. The conversation white people must have, in our lives and in our art, is a conversation with ourselves and one another about how to repair ourselves, reallocate resource, and learn to live together. W.E.B. DuBois asked, “What on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?”. Taken to the bone, there is little to the identity other than a posture. DuBois described this way of being when he wrote, “I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever. Amen.”. In these essays I am trying to explore consider the cost and alternatives to white identity. In my essay, Lunar Phases, I write, “White writers have a history of escaping to nature as I have attempted to do in this essay. In the frontier we imagine ourselves to commune with nature or the stars or the moon. In this gaze we become raceless. But if we listen, even to nature, we hear the call to return to our natural rhythms. White women like myself, in ongoing relegation to housework, forced birth, and lack of protection when become mothers, will recognize the ways that we are out of step”. Michal Chabon called the dichotomous or categorical as an “apartheid of consciousness.” This split is within the white writer’s expression. It could be described as an artistic mental illness to continue to create art out of such an intense and pervasive dissociation. In Toni Morrison’s review of the white literary cannon, she sites Sapphira and the Slave Girl, as one attempt that failed not because of Cather’s limited gifts but on account her limited vision in the narrative subject matter, namely the writer herself. Morrison writes that Cather was trying to address a buried subject which is “the interdependent working of power, race and sexuality in a white woman’s battle for coherence”. Morrison noted the flaws in Cather’s attempts and concludes that Cather deserves credit for “undertaking the journey”. Coherence is a goal of these essays while I am aware that it is a process and not a destination that will be achieved here or in a lifetime. Reconciliation itself is a process that must be returned to again and again and not something that can be achieved. Coherence, even in the realm of the imagination, requires that the writer understands where she is from in terms of her gender, race, time, and place. In my essay Electric Feel I give witness ongoing white flight, now from one suburb to the next. It is spoken of in veiled language under the guise of a need for safety. I write of the neighbor worried that “anyone could come over that fence”. Jess Row writes that. “a house is not just a house: it’s an act of psychic positioning, a feedback loop, in which visual surroundings condition the owner’s inner landscape, and vis versa”. To gain coherence would be to bring awareness to this inner landscape of whiteness that desires to be deracinated or color blind and yet still seeks to be surrounded with reflections of oneself, of whiteness. Last week, a non-racist woman told me, following her vacation, “It’s hard to say why Montana was so relaxing for me, but everyone there was white. I think that was it, there was a calmness to it.” Jess Row called this brand of white flight an “aestheticization of social reality” and “a posture of avoidance or evasion: the desire not to have one’s visual field constantly...

Subject Area

Creative writing|Fine arts

Recommended Citation

Howard, Amy, "Crucial Silence" (2020). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI30240957.