Black Mirror: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism
By Eric Lott
Harvard University Press, 262 pp., $29.95
September 25, 2017
Someone, who is not American, asked me some time ago, “Why are Americans so obsessed with race?” The question took me aback, but as it turns out, this question is not an uncommon one throughout the world, particularly in Western Europe.
When Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York City in 2011 after being accused of rape by a hotel maid, differences in how America and France perceive race were on full display, as much as any other transatlantic contradiction. Strauss-Kahn was the head of the International Monetary Fund and in line to be France’s next President when a maid from Guinea accused him of raping her and his semen was found on her clothing. To the American media, race was a critical factor in defining the case. To the French, how race was relevant was perplexing – as was the vagaries of the American criminal justice system and the media itself. In a story published by Newsweek, the maid, Nafi Diallo was described as follows:
“Nafi” Diallo is not glamorous. Her light-brown skin is pitted with what look like faint acne scars, and her dark hair is hennaed, straightened, and worn flat to her head, but she has a womanly, statuesque figure. When her face is in repose, there is an opaque melancholy to it. Working at the Sofitel for the last three years, with its security and stability, was clearly the best job she’d ever hoped to have, after years braiding hair and working in a friend’s store in the Bronx as a newcomer from Guinea in 2003.”
Aside from clearly attempting to comment on her attractiveness while pretending to merely describe her (as if how attractive a woman is perceived to be should be critical evidence in determining whether someone would want to rape her), Newsweek also loads with unsaid meaning the comment that this “was clearly the best job she’d ever hoped to have.”
When Prosecutors found discrepancies in some of Ms. Diallo’s statements, their case against Strauss-Kahn fell apart. A black nurse commenting to The New York Times summarized her views on the case by saying, “We keep seeing these rich white people get off. If it was me, or somebody like me, I’d never get away with anything like this.”
A year after the Strauss-Kahn affair, the French film Intouchables landed in American theaters. Twenty million tickets to the movie were sold in France – astonishingly high, implying one in three people in France went to see the movie, a roughly equivalent ratio for the United States for the one hundred million people who went to see the latest Star Wars movie and continues to be the biggest earning non-English language movie in cinema history. The film is about a wealthy quadriplegic who hires a caregiver, a black man that shows up to the interview merely to continue receiving welfare benefits. The caregiver takes care of the quadriplegic in almost every aspect of his life and along the way teaches him the joy of funk music as opposed to Vivaldi.
The relationship between the two men was touching to the French. It was a rehash of racial stereotypes to Americans. Roger Ebert, the most famous American film critic at the time, said:
“But at the end of the day, if you look through the details of the foreground, you see that we are served a simplistic version of racial stereotypes. This was also true of Miss Daisy and her driver,but it was a period film, located in the South at the end of the 1940s, whose characters, already aged, had been shaped by their time. There was something plausible about it, Intouchables is more of a fantasy of appeasement.”
The point of this miscommunication between France and the United States is not that where Americans are racially sensitive, the French are not, it is that racism and racist stereotypes have meaning only when considered in a historical context which give them power. The gulf between viewpoints is akin to someone joining a conversation towards the end and expecting to be aware of precisely what is being discussed. Whispers of racism, what politically are often referred to as “dog whistles,” are only given power when mediated by a culture, in France certain whispers lose much of their power while, when mediated by American culture, they remain very powerful indeed.
A Dream Deferred
At the time when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said he had a dream (1963) it was still possible to be taken seriously while denying the validity of the dream itself. It no longer is and so those seeking to deny it have found that it is much more beneficial to say that the dream has already been achieved. In a 2007 decision on affirmative action in Seattle and Lousiville, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts famously said, “The best way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” What a simultaneously profound and vapid statement. The rest of us must have failed to solve intractable racism because we forgot to snap our fingers, click our heels together, and declare its end. Nevertheless, opinion polling suggests that this fantasy is an appealing one to large sections of America. A recent Pew Research survey showed that 46% of white Americans believe that they have racial advantages, while 92% of black Americans would say that white Americans do.
People often forget the later dissenting opinion authored by Sonia Sotomayor, and joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a 2014 Michigan case regarding affirmative action in higher education, that is revealing in outlining the stark differences in how some choose to talk about race:
“In my colleagues’ view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.” (Emphasis added.)
Abundant literature exists that displays the objective consequences of racism in the United States. Too often, it is thought that racial disparity is rooted in 18th and 19th-century racism. While not strictly false, that view ignores the reality that the disparity persists today not because of the distant past, but because we made choices, we continue to make choices, that reinforce the status quo. Two recent books, in particular, illustrate very clearly the objective and enormous consequences of persistent, and sometimes event subtle, racist beliefs among policymakers and ordinary citizens alike.
Harvard’s Elizabeth Hinton’s 2016 book From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America beautifully illustrates the origins of the modern criminal justice system through an analysis of decisions made in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations and the inevitable conclusion that today’s inequities within the criminal justice system trace back to racist viewpoints held at the time. Richard Rothstein’s, of the Economic Policy Institute, book on residential segregation The Color of Law details how overt racism established the pervasive residential segregation in America’s largest cities and created downstream disparities that include segregation in public education and a racial wealth gap.
Factors discussed by Hinton and Rothstein are objective and not easily pushed aside, yet racism itself is often a subjective force. Most of the time what is and is not felt as racist emerges because of the centuries of dialogue and history that inserts itself into modern events. It is also, at root, both a psychological event and the result of continued, deliberate choices. Without understanding what is informing that psychology and those choices, it is not something that we can hope to overcome. While the reality and effects of racism must be studied and discussed, so too do the factors that infiltrate people in order to ensure the perpetuation of these attitudes.
Eric Lott’s new book Black Mirror confronts head on the cultural contribution to the persistence of racism in the psyche of the United States and in so doing provides a framework to understand the power of how black figures are presented to white audiences.
Lott’s first book, Love and Theft, was a seminal study of blackface minstrelsy. The minstrel show was the first form of mass entertainment in the United States and featured white actors covered in blackface illustrating racial stereotypes. Lott saw numerous contradictions in the joy that white, working-class men found in these performances. Embedded in minstrelsy is a cultural appropriation of blackness and a means for white America to exert complete control over the identity of blackness and how that identity ought to be portrayed. But, more than that, the interaction between performer and spectator illustrate the fascination and love white Americans have with black culture and fear and anxiety with that same fascination as well as a recognition that the power of black identity was so strong, it had to be subjugated.
When the minstrel was gaining in popularity, there was no generally accepted definition of what it meant to be white. Certainly, those who were Irish or Jewish at the time were not deemed white, something strange when looking back today. By defining a black identity in the minstrel show, the audiences forged an identity based upon their own whiteness: being white meant not being black and in having an inward superiority to blackness. It dissolved racial boundaries while creating brand new ones.
Lott calls this dynamic – of white identity being forged through what Ralph Ellison said was the “counterfeiting” of the black identity – the “black mirror.” In doing so, he draws heavily on what Marx defined as “surplus value” – the value which labor creates in excess of the wages earned – as well as what he called the “relations of production,” in which there is a severing of the relationship between a produced commodity and the labor embedded in it. As commodities are valued independent of the human relationships which produced them, Lott finds a parallel in the black mirroring of popular culture: interracial human interaction is mediated by objects seen independently of the relationship.
Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism discusses the contradiction inherent in capitalism as the joy attached to consumption, divorced from the underlying values of production. Lott’s subtitle to the book – “The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism” – is knowingly borrowed from Bell and establishes Lott’s thesis firmly as a Marxist critique of race relations.
Obama and Political Fantasy
This theory of black mirroring is built upon through consideration of numerous examples, starting with Barack Obama and the creative use of social and political fantasy. Obama, writing in Dreams From My Father, recognized the simple way in which his mother saw race – as a constructed fantasy where black men are idealized as heroes and messiahs or vilified as threatening and evil. David Pease saw Obama’s presidency as a reframing of the Orphic myth in which Obama was able to create a new racial fantasy, one in which “Barack Obama” can exist as neither white or black. Lott sees something different, a fantasy scripted by Obama and won through orphic tightrope walking in which good men can triumph over institutions rather than being forced to conform to those institutions.
Lott’s view is on full display during Obama’s second inaugural address:
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
It’s a beautiful fantasy, but it remains true that the fight for women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights waged at Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall were waged against state terror positioned to block social progress. President Obama who now headed that same state and clearly maintained a system of oppressive power marshaled against new forces manages to involve everyone in the collective fantasy that the President of the United States is somehow able to ‘fight the power’ that he himself occupies. In a jarring, uncomfortable, and thought-provoking sentence that stares directly into the black mirror, Lott writes in reference to Obama, “The chains belonged to him.”
During the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama spoofed himself by drawing upon the near universal praise of the acting of Daniel Day-Lewis by pretending that he is, in fact, Daniel Day-Lewis acting as Barack Obama.
Day-Lewis as Obama practices getting phrases just perfect so as to appeal to the white audiences required to elect him. Lott sees the parody – or should we say fantasy? – as a reassuring one to white audiences: the seat of power may be temporarily occupied by a black man, but inside lay the heart of a white man.
That is not to say that Barack Obama is inauthentic or someone who needs to ‘prove his blackness.’ But, it does mean that the necessary fantasy built around him included a mirroring that ultimately has the power to reinforce black and white cultural norms rather than transcend them.
All the Kings Men
Perhaps Lott’s finest analysis in Black Mirror is in his chapter on the Elvis impersonation industry, in which working-class white men (in the main) don a mask in the service of appropriating Elvis Presley, who was himself appropriating numerous cultural strands, among them the black arts.
Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, famously said, “If I could find a white boy who could sing like a black man, I’d make a million dollars.” Young Elvis was an avenue in which white listeners were easily able to partake in and fulfill their attraction to cultural blackness while remaining unambiguous regarding their own whiteness.
Clarence Giddens, “Black Elvis,” inverted this appropriation as a black Elvis impersonator. He was chastised by an audience member on the Geraldo show for not finding someone of his own race to mimic. There are reasons why some were bound to see him as inauthentic, among them the anxiety produced at being confronted with the inauthenticity of Presley himself, while staring into the black mirror of someone who is himself self-consciously inauthentic.
Lott also sees a kind of masochism in Elvis’ impersonators who choose an art in which they will never be able to reach the ideal. The worship bestowed on dead Elvis from his impersonators further highlights this masochism. One impersonator, Bert Hathaway, called Elvis the greatest person to walk the face of the earth. His fetished adulation is little different from that of some Christians who take their life’s accumulated energy and spend it in pursuit of a man they freely admit they will never feel equal to.
The heart of Lott’s chapter rests in Tony Grova’s performance of “An American Trilogy,” a song pieced together from “Dixie,” “All My Trials,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Not coincidentally, “Dixie” began its life as a minstrel song celebrating slavery, in which the sentimentality of slaves conclusively demonstrates that even they understand their God-given role on earth. “Dixie” subsequently became the Confederacy’s national anthem.
“All My Trials” was another old song, but it only found life during the Civil Rights movement when the story of a dying mother comforting her children found resonance and was popularized primarily by Joan Baez. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was a northern Civil War anthem bringing God’s divine judgment into the narrative of the war.
Altogether, the juxtaposition of these extracts contains overlapping and contradicting elements. Made famous by Elvis Presley, a new layer of contradiction is brought to the surface – a white man trafficking in the black arts singing songs simultaneously about the triumph of God’s will and the human spirit with the moral rectitude of slavery. To overlay an Elvis impersonator onto this messy dynamic muddies this “melting pot” even further.
Ultimately, what is so appealing to the working class men impersonating Elvis is the belief that through Elvis they can transcend their own limitations. Lott describes the desire of these men in terms of acting out the traditional definition of their own identity: as strong, proud, independent, sexually attractive, American men. As Lott says, “It bears keeping in mind this is the best moment of the working-class wish-fulfillment visible in Elvis impersonation.”
“Love and Theft”
If his chapter on Elvis is his best, then Lott’s chapter on Dylan is his most anticipated. It is widely known that Dylan appropriated Lott’s title Love and Theft for his 2001 album. Lott originally planned on titling Black Mirror, Tangled Up in Blue. A wise decision to change the title, since Dylan is a character in this story, but not its primary focus. That does not prevent Lott from slipping in a line in the preface: “U.S. dominant cultural makers have taken up African America in various forms of interracial embrace with variable and uncertain results, often as a way to reproduce themselves and their own hegemony, occasionally with liberating consequences, all of it a blue tangle of impacted self-regard.”
Almost from his debut, Dylan has faced claims of appropriation, but he has also displayed a singular form of artistic creativity. In appropriating Lott’s title, it seems, Dylan also did much to illustrate Lott’s theses. Unlike the death obsession of Time Out of Mind, the singer of “Love and Theft” self-consciously continues to live – but through his own past as well as through symbols that do not belong to him.
The minstrel-esque “High Water” is a knowing appropriation of Charlie Patton, whose “High Water Everywhere” chronicled the 1927 Louisiana flood, but it veers far off the course of its template to include numerous other appropriations to create a world where the water is up to your neck and nobody can find a way out. If there is a central meaning in the song, it is as much biblical as it is Mississippi Delta – that even as calamities, both natural and man-made, surround us, we persist in our ignorance and pettiness. Since the song was released four years before Hurricane Katrina, perhaps Dylan has finally achieved his highest ideal: Old Testament prophet.
To Lott, the most revealing line on the record is in “Lonesome Day Blues”: “Settin’ my dial on the radio / I wish my mother was still alive.” Indeed, Dylan’s mother died not long before “Love and Theft” was made and her ghost is not coincidentally related to the ghosts heard through the “dial of the radio.” With amazing economy, Dylan establishes the centrality of loss to the record: lost people, lost time, lost sanity, lost integrity, lost identity, and above all, lost love. The line also turns the phrase “Love and Theft” on its head by applying it to the love of a mother – and perhaps a romanticized time of musical creation – that is now gone.
The best song of the album, “Mississippi,” appropriates lines from black prisoners at Mississippi’s famous Parchman Farms prison who sing, “Ain’t but one thing I done wrong / Stayed in Mississippi just a day too long…” Is this a song of lost love as interpreted by Sheryl Crow and The Dixie Chicks? It does not appear so, in part from Dylan’s own words to Rolling Stone:
“Things got contentious once in the parking lot. [Original producer Daniel Lanois] tried to convince me that the song had to be ‘sexy, sexy and more sexy.’ I know about sexy, too. He reminded me of Sam Phillips, who had once said the same thing to John Prine about a song, but the circumstances were not similar. I tried to explain that the song had more to do with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights than witch doctors, and just couldn’t be thought of as some kind of ideological voodoo thing.”
It’s barely a stretch to say that “Mississippi” could be called “Ghosts of Mississippi.” An unexpected allusion to Shakespeare solidifies the moral and political message, “Give me your hand and say you’ll be mine,” from Measure for Measure, a comedy adapted from tragic sources and may have caught Dylan’s eye because of the extent to which Shakespeare was willing to drench the play in the biblical view of sin and mercy. “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
A young Bob Dylan composed “Oxford Town” when a black student, James Meredith, was admitted to the University of Mississippi only after the interference of federal troops.
“Oxford Town in the afternoon
Everybody singin’ a sorrowful tune
Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon
Somebody better investigate soon”
The “two men” who died were killed in the ensuing protests. “Somebody better investigate soon”? What was there to investigate? It was not as if any mystery existed about the underlying facts. Perhaps because no one had adequately investigated it by his own standards, Dylan returns himself to perform the investigation and yet reveals surprisingly little about that investigation. Like slaves following the “southern star” (and not the “North Star”), the singer has stayed in Mississippi too long and ended up enslaved.
Bob Dylan, like all great poets, communicates by means of symbols, and at varying times he has found a particular communities’ symbols to be the most powerful to use as his means of expression. Undeniably, he had a fascination for black music and culture extending from blackface to the delta blues and makes terrific creative use of appropriating its collective symbolism and in telling the world he was a thief by co-opting the title of a book about cultural exchange for its title.
You should be forewarned: Eric Lott’s third book is not a simple one, and in that sense it is not unlike his first two. It is not a book that is easily digestible and having some understanding of Love and Theft will make grasping Black Mirror easier. Readers willing to not simply ride roughshod over the dense language will find themselves learning things about themselves and the United States that they never realized before.
If it was necessary to extract one thing from Black Mirror, I would nominate this: in a history of racial fantasy, the idea of a “post-racial America” is the indulging in just one more fantasy. It is evident in the racial mirroring essential to making Barack Obama palatable to white voters and which allowed Bill Clinton’s comparison of him to Jesse Jackson to not define his identity. It is evident in the man at the center of pop culture and who’s own trafficking in blackness gave working-class Americans the space to safely do the same. And it’s evident in America’s poet laureate (well, maybe second in line to Walt Whitman) whose formation of identity in a black mirror allowed for the symbolism of the oppressed to become the symbolism of a nation, as if the black arts were a liberation theology for white America too.
I am not optimistic that we will see a time, not soon anyway, in which race is conceived of so nonchalantly as it is now in France and other countries (it should be noted that the French nation has many of their own self-contradictions). But, I do believe that Justice Sotomayor was correct in asserting that the best way to understand the deep psychology of racism is to study it and talk about it. Saying “post-racial” makes you feel good, as if we’ve conquered history after all and once the institutions of the Country were made aware of their oversights, went about setting things straight. As Lott’s beautiful new book makes painfully aware, not only is this false but we have not even begun to realize the full extent of the damage to our culture that racism has inflicted.