From: The House that Race Built. Editor Wahneema Lubiano. New York: Pantheon Books. 1997.
FROM THE BEGINNING I was looking for a sovereignty--an authority--that I believed was available to me only in fiction writing. In that activity alone did I feel coherent, unfettered. There, in the process of writing, was the willed illusion, the control, the pleasure of nestling up ever closer to meaning. There alone the delight of redemption, the seduction of origination. But I have known for a good portion of the past twenty-nine years that those delights, those seductions, are deliberate inventions necessary to both do the work and legislate its mystery. It became increasingly clear how language both liberated and imprisoned me. Whatever the forays of my imagination, the keeper, whose keys tinkled always within earshot, was race.
I have never lived, nor has any of us, in a world in which race did not matter. Such a world, one free of racial hierarchy, is usually imagined or described as dreamscape--Edenesque, utopian, so remote are the possibilities of its achievement. From Martin Luther King's hopeful language, to Doris Lessing's four-gated city, to Jean Toomer's "American," the race-free world has been posited as ideal, millennial, a condition possible only if accompanied by the Messiah or situated in a protected preserve--a wilderness park.
But, for the purposes of this talk and because of certain projects I am engaged in, I prefer to think of a-world-in-which-race-does-not-matter as something other than a theme park, or a failed and always-failing dream, or as the father's house of many rooms. I am thinking of it as home. "Home" seems a suitable term because, first, it lets me make a radical distinction between the metaphor of house and the metaphor of home and helps me clarify my thoughts on racial construction. Second, the term domesticates the racial project, moves the job of unmattering race away from pathetic yeaming and futile desire; away from an impossible future or an irretrievable and probably nonexistent Eden to a manageable, doable, modern human activity. Third, because eliminating the potency of racist constructs in language is the work I can do. I can't wait for the ultimate liberation theory to imagine its practice and do its work. Also, matters of race and matters of home are priorities in my work and both have in one way or another initiated my search for that elusive sovereignty as well as my abandonment of the search once I recognized its disguise.
As an already--and always--raced writer, I knew from the very beginning that I could not, would not, reproduce the master's voice and its assumptions of the all-knowing law of the white father. Nor would I substitute his voice with that of his fawning mistress or his worthy opponent, for both of these positions (mistress or opponent) seemed to confine me to his terrain, in his arena, accepting the house rules in the dominance game. If I had to live in a racial house, it was important, at the least, to rebuild it so that it was not a windowless prison into which I was forced, a thick-walled, impenetrable container from which no cry could be heard, but rather an open house, grounded, yet generous in its supply of windows and doors. Or, at the most, it became imperative for me to transform this house completely. Counterracism was never an option.
I was tempted to convert it into a palace where racism didn't hurt so much; to crouch in one of its many rooms where coexistence offered the delusion of agency. At some point I tried to use the race house as a scaffolding from which to launch a movable feast that could operate, be celebrated, on any number of chosen sites. That was the authority, the glossy comfort, the redemptive quality, the freedom writing seemed at first to promise.
Yet in that freedom, as in all freedoms (especially stolen ones), lies danger. Could I redecorate, redesign, even reconceive the racial house without forfeiting a home of my own? Would life in this renovated house mean eternal homelessness? Would it condemn me to intense bouts of nostalgia for the race-free home I have never had and would never know? Or would it require intolerable circumspection, a self-censoring bond to the locus of racial architecture? In short, wasn't I (wouldn't I always be) tethered to a death-dealing ideology even (and especially) when I honed all my intelligence toward subverting it?
These questions, which have engaged so many, have troubled all of my work. How to be both free and situated; how to convert a racist house into a race-specific yet nonracist home. How to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling? They are questions of concept, of language, of trajectory, of habitation, of occupation, and, although my engagement with them has been fierce, fitful, and constantly (I think) evolving, they remain in my thoughts as aesthetically and politically unresolved.
Frankly, I look to the contributors of this conference for literary and extraliterary analyses and for much of what can be better understood about matters of race. I believe, however, that my own writerly excursions and my use of a house/home antagonism are related to the topics addressed at this conference because so much of what seems to lie about in discourses on race concerns legitimacy, authenticity, community, belonging. In no small way, these discourses are about home: an intellectual home; a spiritual home; family and community as home; forced and displaced labor in the destruction of home; dislocation of and alienation within the ancestral home; creative responses to exile, the devastations, pleasures, and imperatives of homelessness as it is manifested in discussions on feminism, globalism, the diaspora, migrations, hybridity, contingency, interventions, assimilations, exclusions. The estranged body, the legislated body, the violated, rejected, deprived body&emdash;the body as consummate home. In virtually all of these formations, whatever the terrain, race magnifies the matter that matters.
Let me try to be explicit in the ways the racial house has troubled my work.
There was a moment of some significance to me that followed the publication of Beloved. It concerns the complex struggle and frustration inherent in creating figuratively logical narrative language that insists on race-specificity without race prerogative.
Someone saw the last sentence of Beloved as it was originally written. In fact, it was the penultimate sentence if one thinks of the last word in the book (the resurrection of the title, the character, and the epigraph) as the very last sentence. In any case the phrase "Certainly no clamor for a kiss," which appears in the printed book, is not the one with which I had originally closed the book. My friend was startled by the change. I told him that my editor had suggested an alteration in the language of the sentence without, of course, offering a sample of what the change might be.
The friend railed at my editor for his audacity and at me, too, for considering, let alone agreeing to, the change. I then went to some pains to explain to him why I did it, but became entangled in what the original phrase had meant, or rather what the original last word of the phrase had meant to me. How long it took to arrive at it, how I thought it was the perfect final word; that it connected everything together from the epigraph and the difficult plot to the struggles of the characters through the process of re-membering the body and its parts, remembering the family, the neighborhood, and our national history. How it reflected this remembering, revealed its necessity, clarified its complexity, and provided the bridge I wanted from the beginning of the book to its end, as well as the beginning of the book that was to follow.
As I went on belaboring the importance of the word, my friend became angrier and angrier. It seemed clear to him from my sustained defense of the word I had abandoned that I was still convinced of its rightness. Nevertheless, I said, I thought there was something to be considered in the editor's objection (which was simply that--not a command). The editor wondered if a better word could be found to end the book because the one I had chosen was too dramatic, too theatrical. At first I disagreed with him: it was a simple, common word. But I was open to his opinion that, in the context of the previous passages, it stood out like a sore thumb. That may even have been his phrase.
Still I resisted the revision for some time (a long time, considering that we were in the galley or late manuscript stage--I am not sure which). I went away and thought about how completely reliable the editor's instincts and recommendations had always been. I decided, finally, to let the decision rest on whether I could indeed find a better word. One that produced the same meaning and had the same effect.
I was eager to find a satisfactory replacement, because the point that gripped me was that even if the word I had chosen was the absolute right one, something was wrong with it if it called attention to itself--awkwardly, inappropriately--and did not complete the meaning of the text, but dislodged it. It wasn't a question of simply substituting one word for another that meant the same thing: I might have to rewrite a good deal in order to assure myself that a certain synonym was preferable. Eventually, I did discover a word that seemed to accomplish what the original one did with less mystification: "kiss."
The discussion with my friend made me realize that I am still unhappy about it because "kiss" works at a level a bit too shallow. It searches for and locates a quality or element of the novel that was not, and is not, its primary feature. The driving force of the narrative is not love, or the fulfillment of physical desire. The action is driven by necessity, something that precedes love, follows love, informs love, shapes it, and to which love is subservient. In this case the necessity was for connection, acknowledgment, a paying-out of homage still due. "Kiss" clouds that point.
I was inclined to believe that there were poorly lit passages leading up to that original word if indeed it was so very misunderstood and so strongly and wrongly unsettling. I have been reading recently some analyses of revisions of texts out of copyright and thinking about the ways in which books get not only reread but also rewritten--both in one's own language (with the ambivalence of the writer and the back-and-forth between editor and writer), and in translation. The liberties translators take that enhance; the ones taken that diminish. And for me, the alarm. There is always the threat of not being taken seriously, of having the work reduced to social anthropology, of having the politics of one's own language, the politics of another language bury, rather than expose, the reader's own politics.
My effort to manipulate American English was not to take standard English and use vernacular to decorate it, or to add "color" to dialogue. My efforts were to carve away the accretions of deceit, blindness, ignorance, paralysis, and sheer malevolence embedded in raced language so that other kinds of perception were not only available but were inevitable. That is the work I thought my original last word accomplished; then I became convinced that it did not, and now am sorry I made the change. The trouble it takes to find just one word and know that it is that note and no other that would do is an extraordinary battle. To have found it and lost it is, in retrospect, infuriating. Well, what does it matter? Can a book really fall apart because of one word, even if it's in a critical position? Probably not.
But maybe it can, if the writing is emphasizing racial specificity minus racist hierarchy in its figurative choices. In this instance I settled for the latter. I gave up a word that was racially charged and figuratively coherent for one that was only the latter, because my original last word was so clearly disjunctive, a sore thumb, a jarring note combining as it did two linguistically incompatible functions--except when signaling racial exoticism. It is difficult to sign race while designing racelessness.
Actually, I think my editor was right. The original word was the "wrong" word. But I also know that my friend was right: the "wrong" word, in this case, was also the only word. Since language is community, if the cognitive ecology of a language is altered, so is the community. As you can see, my assertion of agency outside the raced house turned into genuflection in its familiar yard.
That experience of regret highlights for me the need to rethink the subtle yet persuasive attachments we may have to the architecture of race. We need to think about what it means and what it takes to live in a redesigned racial house and evasively and erroneously--call it diversity or multiculturalism as a way of calling it home. We need to think about how invested some of the best theoretical work may be in clinging to the house's redesign as simulacrum. We need to think about what new dangers present themselves when escape or self-exile from the house of racial construction is announced or achieved.
I risk here, perhaps, charges of encouraging futile attempts to transcend race or pernicious efforts to trivialize it. It would worry me a great deal if my remarks--or my narratives--were to be so completely misunderstood. What I am determined to do is to take what is articulated as an elusive race-free paradise and domesticate it. I am determined to concretize a literary discourse that (outside of science fiction) resonates exclusively in the register of permanently unrealizable dream. It is a discourse that (unwittingly) allows racism an intellectual weight to which it has absolutely no claim. My confrontation is piecemeal and very slow. Unlike the successful advancement of an argument, narration requires the active complicity of a reader willing to step outside established boundaries of the racial imaginary. And, unlike visual media, narrative has no pictures to ease the difficulty of that step.
In writing novels the adventure for me has been explorations of seemingly impenetable, race-inflected, race-clotted topics. In the first book I was interested in racism as a cause, consequence, and manifestation of individual and social psychosis. In the second I was preoccupied with the culture of gender and the invention of identity, both of which acquired astonishing meaning when placed in a racial context. In Song of Solomon and Tar Baby I was interested in the impact of race on the romance of community and individuality. In Beloved I wanted to explore the revelatory possibilities of historical narration when the body-mind, subjectobject, past-present oppositions, viewed through the lens of race, collapse. In Jazz I tried to locate American modernity as a response to the race house. It was an attempt to blow up its all-encompassing shelter, its allknowingness, and its assumptions of control. In the novel I am now writing, I am trying first to enunciate and then eclipse the racial gaze altogether.
In Jazz the dynamite fuse to be lit was under the narrative voice--the voice that could begin with claims of knowledge, inside knowledge, and indisputable authority ("I know that woman....") and end with the blissful epiphany of its vulnerable humanity and its own needs. In my current project I want to see whether or not race-specific, race-free language is both possible and meaningful in narration. And I want to inhabit, walk around, a site clear of racist detritus; a place where race both matters and is rendered impotent; a place "already made for me, both snug and wide open. With a doorway never needing to be closed, a view slanted for light and bright autumn leaves but not rain. Where moonlight can be counted on if the sky is clear and stars no matter what. And below, just yonder, a river called Treason to rely on." I want to imagine not the threat of freedom, or its tentative panting fragility, but the concrete thrill of borderlessness--a kind of out of doors safety where "a sleepless woman could always rise from her bed, wrap a shawl around her shoulders and sit on the steps in the moonlight. And if she felt like it she could walk out the yard and on down the road. No lamp and no fear. A hiss-crackle from the side of the road would never scare her because what ever it was that made that sound, it wasn't something creeping up on her. Nothing for miles around thought she was prey. She could stroll as slowly as she liked, thinking of food preparations, of family things, or lift her eyes to stars and think of war or nothing at all. Lampless and without fear she could make her way. And if a light shone from a window up a ways and the cry of a colicky baby caught her attention, she might step over to the house and call out softly to the woman inside trying to soothe the baby. The two of them might take turns massaging the infant stomach, rocking, or trying to get a little soda water down. When the baby quieted they could sit together for a spell, gossiping, chuckling low so as not to wake anybody else. The woman could decide to go back to her bed then, refreshed and ready to sleep, or she might stay her direction and walk further down the road--on out, beyond, because nothing around or beyond considered her prey."
That description is meant to evoke not only the safety and freedom outside the race house, but to suggest contemporary searches and yearnings for social space that is psychically and physically safe.
The overweening, defining event of the modern world is the mass movement of raced populations, beginning with the largest forced transfer of people in the history of the world: slavery. The consequences of which transfer have determined all the wars following it as well as the current ones being waged on every continent. The contemporary world's work has become policing, halting, forming policy regarding, and trying to administer the movement of people. Nationhood--the very definition of citizenship--is constantly being demarcated and redemarcated in response to exiles, refugees, Gastarbeiter, immigrants, migrations, the displaced, the fleeing, and the besieged. The anxiety of belonging is entombed within the central metaphors in the discourse on globalism, transnationalism, nationalism, the break-up of federations, the rescheduling of alliances, and the fictions of sovereignty. Yet these figurations of nationhood and identity are frequently as raced themselves as the originating racial house that defined them. When they are not raced, they are, as I mentioned earlier, imaginary landscape, never inscape; Utopia, never home.
I applaud and am indebted to scholars here and elsewhere who are clearing intellectual and moral space where racial constructs are heing forced to reveal their struts and bolts, their technology and their carapace, so that political action, legal and social thought, and cultural production can be generated sans racist cant, explicit or in disguise.
The defenders of Westem hegemony sense the encroachment and have already defined the possibility of imagining race without dominance--without hierarchy--as "barbarism." We are already being asked to understand such a world as the destruction of the four-gated city, as the end of history. We are already being asked to know such a world as aftermath--as rubbish, as an already damaged experience, as a valueless future. Once again, the political consequences of new and threatening theoretical work is the ascription of an already-named catastrophe. It is therefore more urgent than ever to develop nonmessianic language to refigure the raced community, to decipher the deracing of the world. It is more urgent than ever to develop an epistemology that is neither intellectual slumming nor self-serving reification. Participants in this conference are marking out space for critical work that neither bleeds the raced house for the gains it provides in authenticity and insiderdom, nor abandons it to its own signifying gestures. To the extent the world-as-home that we are working for is already described in the raced house as waste, the work this conference draws our attention to is not just interesting--it may save our lives.
The campuses where we mostly work and frequently assemble will not, under the close scrutiny of conferences such as this one, remain alien terrain. Our campuses will not retain their fixed borders while tolerating travel from one kind of race-inflected community to another as interpreters, native guides. They will not remain a collection of segregated castles from whose balustrades we view--even invite--the homeless. They will not remain markets where we permit ourselves to be auctioned, bought, silenced, downsized, and vastly compromised depending on the whim of the master and the going rate. Nor will they remain oblivious to the work of conferences such as this one because they cannot enforce or afford the pariah status of race theory without forfeiting the mission of the university itself.
Hostility to race studies, however, is not limited to political and academic critics. There is much wariness in off-campus communities, especially minority communities where resentment against being described and spoken for can be intense, regardless of the researcher's agenda. The distrust that race studies often receive from the authenticating off-campus community is legitimate only when the scholars themselves have not recognized their own participation in the maintenance of the race house. The wariness is justified only when scholars have not unapologetically recognized that the valuable work they do can be done best in this environment; when they have not envisioned academic life as straddling opposing worlds or as escapist flight. W. E. B. Dubois's observation about double consciousness is a strategy, not a prophecy or a cure. Beyond the dichotomous double consciousness, the new space this conference explores is formed by the inwardness of the outside, the interiority of the "othered," the personal that is always embedded in the public. In this new space one can imagine safety without walls, can iterate difference that is prized but unprivileged, and can conceive of a third, if you will pardon the expression, world "already made for me, both snug and wide open, with a doorway never needing to be closed." Home.