Brown: The Last Discovery of America

BOOK: Brown: The Last Discovery of America
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Table of Contents
Praise for
and Richard Rodriguez
“Rodriguez is an original thinker, an astute observer and an uncommonly gifted writer.”
—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“As a writer Rodriguez has his own linguistic bravado, which strikes off images with the brio of a Shakespeare and the wicked humor of a political cartoonist.”
—Buffalo News
“Challenging, eloquent, witty, and searingly beautiful.”

provides a powerful argument for our need to re-imagine place and race alike as we enter this century.”
—Winston-Salem Journal
“This book resonates with beautiful prose and such deep insight that it should be required reading for all those intrigued by our human condition.”
—New York Sun
“Rodriguez offers the reader one of the most provocative and compelling descriptions of what he calls the ‘browning of America.’ ”
“Beautifully written and well-edited,
has matured from the raw juice of observation and become a rather fine wine.”
—National Post
“The works in
are not neat little patterned exercises pointed toward a conclusion. They’re chewy like Emerson’s; they pop with firecracker insights like D.H. Lawrence’s.”
—The San Jose Mercury News
Richard Rodriguez works as an editor at the Pacific News Service in San Francisco and is a contributing editor for
magazine and the Sunday “Opinion” section of the
Los Angeles Times
. He appears regularly as an essayist on the
NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
on PBS. He is the author of
Hunger of Memory
Days of Obligations
Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez
Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father
PENGUIN BOOKS Published by the Penguin Group Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2 Penguin Books India (P) Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, India Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, Cnr Rosedale and Airborne Roads, Albany, Auckland, New Zealand Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England
First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin,
a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.
Published in Penguin Books 2003
Copyright © Richard Rodriguez, 2002 All rights reserved
Page 233 constitutes an extension of this copyright page.
eISBN : 978-1-101-16150-0

For Jimmy, before the birds cry . . .
I write of a color that is not a singular color, not a strict recipe, not an expected result, but a color produced by careless desire, even by accident; by two or several. I write of blood that is blended. I write of brown as complete freedom of substance and narrative. I extol impurity.
I eulogize a literature that is suffused with brown, with allusion, irony, parodox—ha!—pleasure.
I write about race in America in hopes of undermining the notion of race in America.
Brown bleeds through the straight line, unstaunchable—the line separating black from white, for example. Brown confuses. Brown forms at the border of contradiction (the ability of language to express two or several things at once, the ability of bodies to experience two or several things at once).
It is that brown faculty I uphold by attempting to write brownly. And I defy anyone who tries to unblend me or to say what is appropriate to my voice.
You will often find brown in this book as the cement between leaves of paradox.
You may not want paradox in a book. In which case, you had better seek a pure author.
Brown is the color most people in the United States associate with Latin America.
Apart from stool sample, there is no browner smear in the American imagination than the Rio Grande. No adjective has attached itself more often to the Mexican in America than “dirty”—which I assume gropes toward the simile “dirt-like,” indicating dense concentrations of melanin.
I am dirty, all right. In Latin America, what makes me brown is that I am made of the conquistador and the Indian. My brown is a reminder of conflict.
And of reconciliation.
In my own mind, what makes me brown in the United States is that I am Richard Rodriguez. My baptismal name and my surname marry England and Spain, Renaissance rivals.
North of the U.S.-Mexico border, brown appears as the color of the future. The adjective accelerates, becomes a verb: “America is browning.” South of the border, brown sinks back into time. Brown is time.
In middle chapters, I discuss the ways Hispanics brown an America that traditionally has chosen to describe itself as black-and-white. I salute Richard Nixon, the dark father of Hispanicity. But my Hispanic chapters, as I think of them—the chapters I originally supposed were going to appear first in this book—gave way to more elementary considerations. I mean the meeting of the Indian, the African, and the European in colonial America. Red. Black. White. The founding palette.
Some months ago, a renowned American sociologist predicted to me that Hispanics will become “the new Italians” of the United States. (What the Sicilian had been for nineteenth-century America, the Colombian would become for the twenty-first century.)
His prediction seems to me insufficient because it does not account for the influence of Hispanics on the geography of the American imagination. Because of Hispanics, Americans are coming to see the United States in terms of a latitudinal vector, in terms of south-north, hot-cold; a new way of placing ourselves in the twenty-first century.
America has traditionally chosen to describe itself as an east-west country. I grew up on the east-west map of America, facing east. I no longer find myself so easily on that map. In middle age (also brown, its mixture of loss and capture), I end up on the shore where Sir Francis Drake first stepped onto California. I look toward Asia.
As much as I celebrate the browning of America (and I do), I do not propose an easy optimism. The book’s last chapter was completed before the events of September 11, 2001, and now will never be complete. The chapter describes the combustible dangers of brown; the chapter annotates the tragedies it anticipated.
I think brown marks a reunion of peoples, an end to ancient wanderings. Rival cultures and creeds conspire with Spring to create children of a beauty, perhaps of a harmony, previously unknown. Or long forgotten. Even so, the terrorist and the skinhead dream in solitude of purity and of the straight line because they fear a future that does not isolate them. In a brown future, the most dangerous actor might likely be the cosmopolite, conversant in alternate currents, literatures, computer programs. The cosmopolite may come to hate his brownness, his facility, his indistinction, his mixture; the cosmopolite may yearn for a thorough religion, ideology, or tribe.
Many days, I left my book to wander the city, to discover the city outside my book was comically browning. Walking down Fillmore Street one afternoon, I was enjoying the smell of salt, the brindled pigeons, brindled light, when a conversation overtook me, parted around me, just as I passed the bird-store window: Two girls. Perhaps sixteen. White, Anglo, whatever. Tottering on their silly shoes. Talking of boys. The one girl saying to the other:
. . . His complexion is so cool, this sort of light—well, not that light . . .
I realized my book will never be equal to the play of the young.
. . . Sort of reddish brown, you know . . .
The other girl nodded, readily indicated that she did know. But still Connoisseur Number One sought to bag her simile. . . .
Like a Sugar Daddy bar—you know that candy bar?
Two decades ago, I wrote
Hunger of Memory,
the autobiography of a scholarship boy. Ten years later, in
Days of Obligation,
I wrote about the influence of Mexican ethnicity on my American life. This volume completes a trilogy on American public life and my private life.
returns me to years I have earlier described. I believe it is possible to describe a single life thrice, if from three isolations:
Class. Ethnicity. Race.
When I began this book, I knew some readers would take “race” for a tragic noun, a synonym for conflict and isolation. Race is not such a terrible word for me. Maybe because I am skeptical by nature. Maybe because my nature is already mixed. The word race encourages me to remember the influence of eroticism on history. For that is what race memorial izes. Within any discussion of race, there lurks the possibility of romance.
Chapter One
TWO WOMEN AND A CHILD IN A GLADE BESIDE A SPRING. Beyond them, the varnished wilderness wherein bright birds cry. The child is chalk, Europe’s daughter. Her dusky attendants, a green Indian and a maroon slave.
The scene, from
Democracy in America,
is discovered by that most famous European traveler to the New World, Alexis de Tocqueville, aristocratic son of the Enlightenment, liberal, sickly, gray, violet, lacking the vigor of the experiment he has set himself to observe.
“I remember . . . I was traveling through the forests which still cover the state of Alabama. . . .”
In a clearing, at some distance, an Indian woman appears first to Monsieur, followed by a “Negress,” holding by the hand “a little white girl of five or six years.”
The Indian: “A sort of barbarous luxury” set off her costume; “rings of metal were hanging from her nostrils and ears, her hair, which was adorned with glass beads, fell loosely upon her shoulders. . . .” The Negress wore “squalid European garments.”
Such garments are motifs of de Tocqueville’s pathos. His description intends to show the African and the Indian doomed by history in corresponding but opposing ways. (History is a coat cut only to the European.)
“The young Indian, taking the child in her arms, lavished upon her such fond caresses as mothers give, while the Negress endeavored, by various little artifices, to attract the [child’s] attention. . . .”
The white child “displayed in her slightest gestures a consciousness of superiority that formed a strange contrast with her infantine weakness; as if she received the attentions of her companions with a sort of condescension.”
Thus composed: The Indian. The Negress. The white child.
BOOK: Brown: The Last Discovery of America
8.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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