Brown: The Last Discovery of America (10 page)

BOOK: Brown: The Last Discovery of America
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It has been a satisfaction to American boys to play Indian. The impersonation is a license to wildness. Off with the shoes! Off with the shirt! Pee in the bushes; no one can see. Throw rocks at the magpies. No more teachers, no more books. Scalp the girls, make them cry.
Westward expansion was dependent upon Indian ways and Indian guides; frontier bilingualism. Early white settlers in America had to learn Indian ways for survival. But the white man took his instruction in civilization as initiation into savagery. As western migration continued, the white man fully supplanted the Indian upon the landscape. By the nineteenth century, Europeans began to regard all Americans as savage, as having taken on the savagery of the landscape. For the most part, Americans were gratified by this designation.
I have in my possession an old book with an illustration that probably dates from sometime between the wars. It is a cartoon in two panels, attributed to John T. McCutcheon of the
Chicago Tribune
. In the first panel, an old man, sitting on a log, Whitmanesque—slouch hat, long white beard, pipe—is spinning a yarn for a little boy, perhaps his grandson. The two regard an autumn field. Shocks of corn recede into the distance. Colored autumn leaves on the tree against which they rest. They rest, having raked leaves—the old man holds a rake and there is a pile of burning leaves in the foreground. There is mist upon the distance of the field and the sun will shortly go down.
In the second panel, we see what the old man has conjured for the boy. It is night. The sun has become a harvest moon. The burning leaves have become a campfire. The shocks of corn are teepees amongst which ghostly Indians dance a ghostly dance. The cartoon is titled “Injun Summer.”
I describe this particular drawing only because it so exactly depicts Indians as having become figments of white imagination; depicts whites as keepers of the legend. One notices in American poetry, in Longfellow and in Whittier, how secret or divulged knowledge of the landscape passes from the Indian boy to the barefoot boy, the delightful new savage:
. . . How the beavers built their lodges
Where the squirrels hid their acorns . . .
How the tortoise bears his shell,
How the woodchuck digs his cell . . .
(“Barefoot Boy”)
Many Americans, black as well as white, claim Indian blood. The Indian was curiously free, within the white rule, to marry both the white and the black. “I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was
an Indian chief,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston.
Half-breed, in American English, when it referred to Indian-white mixture did not describe an irredeemable contaminant state, but rather a streak of wildness—
You bad half-breed girl!
The Indian’s wildness could be tamed by dilution, by further breeding with Europe. Thomas Jefferson made a curious distinction between black and Indian. Jefferson wished for the integration of Indians into white society; felt that America would be ennobled by that consanguinity. Even while he bedded his slave, Jefferson expressed no similar public wish for a black-white society.
Americans speak of wildness, too, as a taste in game—the flavor of grass and insects, the taste of landscape—but also as a fundamental and profound incapacity for trust or allegiance. In my childhood, wild game was often marinated in cow’s milk—the symbol of American domesticity—in order to “soak the wildness out of it.”
And how to explain the different place accorded the Indian and the African in the white imagination? The Indian refuses to accomplish the European’s will on the land (it is his religion he will not have violated). It becomes the African slave’s task to till the soil, to plant and to reap. By sowing, the African enters into American history. However unwillingly, he consorts with Europeans. The African becomes the enslaved proxy in the white domination of Nature. From this arrangement, the White assumes that the African wants to become like his master (because he already is like his master, he is doing his master’s will).
From this arrangement, the African learns parody, first in earnest, for self-preservation, then in loathing.
From this arrangement, the white man learns parody, first in loathing, then in earnest.
From this point in American history, the African takes over the narrative; the Indian remains the odd man out, sticks to his reserve, embitters himself, while the white man makes him up. The Indian, as much a puritan as any Puritan, as regards identity, never gets a handle on parody or, indeed, on self-parody.
After the Civil War, white Southerners felt themselves bereft. Their way of life was judged by their victors to have been an abomination. After black emancipation, whites, in their loneliness, invented happy Negroes, a happy Babylon of singing and dancing. They invented the American musical. These were the minstrel shows.
It is conventional in America now to view the minstrel shows as only mockery—blackened faces and transvestism (white men also played black women in minstrel shows). The greater mockery was in daring to attribute nostalgia for captivity to black folk. The nostalgia was entirely a white invention, all that mammy stuff, uncle stuff; familial parody. The most famous purveyor of white “ethiopian airs,” as minstrel songs were called, was Stephen Foster. Most of his songs were written in Pennsylvania; Foster hadn’t much knowledge of the South and was forever consulting gazetteers for the names of rivers. Foster’s songs masqueraded as songs overheard on an old plantation. But they were pathetic love songs sung by white people to black people in the guise of mockery.
Black people, of course, have steadfastly refused all pathetic suits.
I never loved you. You are deluded.
By the 1920s, Al Jolson broke the immigrant son’s silence—and he did so in blackface. Here again we gather the puritan theme of America to the parodist’s theme: Jolson’s father was a cantor in a synagogue who disapproved of theater-singing as inappropriate to a Jew. The only way for a young Jewish man to sing from his heart on a stage, to be authentic to his private yearning, was to do so in blackface—a protective masquerade, also an emulation of the supposed freedom of black people.
Shortly after Al Jolson broke the sound barrier, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s creation of Tarzan—in print, comics, and later on the screen—moved many American boys toward the game of naked Africans or “natives.” Tarzan is not an African, but a peer of the realm, an accidental Indian, an inauthentic savage, an innate gentleman, a natural puritan, an ecologist. (It is a very confusing parable.) But the main point taken by American boys is that, while Tarzan is white, he finds his meaning in darkest Africa.
Only decades after Jolson and Tarzan, Norman Mailer wrote an intriguing essay, “The White Negro,” which comes very close to telling the truth about greasepaint and footlights and finding the company of one’s desire. The white hipster went uptown, as to wilderness, to listen to jazz in the forbidden playhouse. A generation later, if white Americans were still not willing to admit to an envy of blacks, they were at least willing to applaud Elvis Presley for daring to play B. B. King. Whites were putting on black culture and calling it their own.
Soon, an unrepentant charmer named Cassius Clay introduced a new game to the American playground: black brag gadocio.
I’m the greatest!
Clay spoke in jingle rhymes and he was all that he said he was, an authentic American hero. Even after Cassius Clay renamed himself Muhammad Ali, his es pousal of Islam—the puritan impulse—did not seem at odds with the playfulness of his self-promotion or his occupation, which was of the playhouse.
In Ali, did America finally have an integrated, playful puritan? Perhaps. But puritanism not only weathered the dawning era of blackface (everyone in the sixties wanted to claim the black analogy), puritanism defined the era: wire-rimmed glasses, unshaved legs, bra burnings, campus witch trials, the rejection of “role-playing” and the rejection of authority, tradition—the university president as British sovereign. And don’t forget the smugness and sourness; the humorlessness, literalness, that characterized the Native American at a school like Stanford, for example, or the Chicano or the black—the insistence on delineating what was offensive, or, better, oppressive or, better, inauthentic.
At a time when the Stanford Dollies were beginning to be instructed in sexual victimization, at a time when white football players were slapping hands in the end zone in imitation of Cab Calloway, a Yurok Indian named Timm Williams would be banned from playing the role of Indian at Stanford. That’s the puritan truth. And reasons for the ban were the purest puritan: Native American students on the Stanford campus, and Native Americans who were not of the campus, objected to the heroic portrayal of the Indian as demeaning to them. A rejection of pageantry as inauthentic. I quote from a Stanford University News Service release (10-11-79):
The term Indians was first used by sportswriters, then adopted by students before [the] Big Game in 1930. It was officially dropped following quiet discussions with Native American students in 1972, when the student senate also voted against its continued use.
In 1972 [Stanford President] Lyman told alumni his talks with American Indian students at Stanford had indicated that “if there is any effect whatever from [use of] the heroic Indian symbol, it is to romanticize and perpetuate an illusion about the American Indian.
“The American Indian students don’t want today’s problems to be concealed in what they regard as always a somewhat commercialized and always somewhat fake representation even of the Indian tradition,” Lyman continued.
“They talk about religious dances [at sports events] being profane, they talk about the impact it has upon them to see pseudo-Indian motifs worked into pompon girls’ costumes, and so on.”
(Nor would Timm Williams lend his headdress—as if that were some profanation of the role.)
In 1971, my sister returned from Paris. She had found that her look—
la mexicaine
—played very well in Paris and she played Paris very well. She returned with long Audrey Hepburn coats and short, very short, skirts. And her hair, always plentiful and lustrous, was wildly teased and tossed. She went to Harvard Business School, where she evolved a playful theory of haute couture as theatrical parody of the mundane. She filled my head with big ideas. She established in my mind that the only point to becoming an intellectual was to become a public intellectual. She established in my mind that a public intellectual should be glamorous:
Stop dressing like a graduate student.
Then she married a judge and gave birth to theatrical children.
In 1972, I went to London to study. I did become, for a time, Rodriguez of the Reading Room. I balanced many a teacup on my knee. I met people. I knew people. Not well. Not well at all. I went to plays, that was my lonely passion and my parish. On a rainy night in March, a Thursday night, I would take up my umbrella and walk out to watch Gielgud illuminate a half-empty theater. I saw everything and everyone. I sat in the cheap seats, young enough to hear every word of the tenuous conversation of the time—they were broken conversations. Blocked. If Gielgud dried up, it didn’t matter, for the conversation was characterized by stammer. The china was chipped, the carpet frayed, and the stage lighting pale—“an afternoon in early spring.” A generation was flickering, dying. I was growing younger, heedless.
BOOK: Brown: The Last Discovery of America
3.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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