The worst thing about writing about race lies in how easy it is; or-to be more specific-how easy it is to do in cliché. There are ready made takes with a series of implicit assertions that come with them, an almost mad libs formula to write something that will receive attention, with an almost guaranteed result to be an audience that will call you brave. Because these takes almost always are devoid of salient, arguable points, they are almost always ad-hominem insults, and because of the subject matter, almost always done in a violent, abusive language.
Few writers play this game better-or baser-than Hilton Als, the subject of this essay and the author of two mercilessly cruel Hatchet Jobs on Athol Fugard and Langston Hughes. In small doses, he evokes a charming progressiveness, but in larger does, his writing is most known for the brand of scolding, parasitic, male feminism that makes men who care about women frightened to take up the title. Away from his Id-the personal stories in “White Girls”, his recent essay about Maggie Nelson- he isn’t completely devoid of insights. At his worst, however, his declarative statements on women, gender, and what feminism should be take up acreages of space that aren’t his, are almost completely silent in critique of misogyny, and do almost nothing but demand an assembly line of ally cookies. And it is almost unbearable to contrast the back patting aesthetics of “White Girls” with his championing of Amiri Baraka and Ed Bullins, the founders of the ‘gore the white woman’ black protest drama.
Als’ stances on race have made him a sort of a hero in some communities, a sort of “tell it like it is” ideologue who is free from cant, but behind them are nothing but rhetorically inconsistent intellectual dry rot. He will tell the reader that August Wilson’s plays were agit prop and another that Amiri Baraka was the most innovative dramatist of his time. His will kneecap Ralph Ellison for being a leftist political writer and Martin McDonough for being a racist in almost interchangeable language. His essay about Athol Fugard was a proto-buzz feed hit job: devoid of any understanding of art, societal dynamics, or the pressures that oppression and privilege puts on everyone, content to punish white people for anything that comes out their mouth. His essay about Langston Hughes http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/sojourner barely raises its station above a vicious slur.
I can understand why people who might not know Als or Langston Hughes might think this take brave. There are a lot of subjects out there, and you can’t punish people for not knowing what they don’t know. However, People who do know Als and Langston Hughes know this to be one of the most slanderous reviews ever put on paper. “One of the architects of black political correctness, he saw as threatening any attempt to expose black difference or weakness in front of a white audience”? Here are excerpts of the reviews this “Politically correct” black poet got from the black press at the time (paragraph 2)http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/langston-hughes. Also in regards to PC, the least politically correct thing that a black writer could do in 1945 was support a black woman who wrote unflinchingly about the Chicago ghettoes and who’s subjects include single parenthood, critique of war, and women’s health (which is what Hughes did in championing Gwendolyn Brooks’ work). Als’s hatchet job also discounts the abuse Hughes took in 60’s for his sexuality and his refusal to engage in the anti-Semitism popular in Black Nationalist circles.
The Hughes Als constructs for a downtown audience has some intersections in common with the Fugard concocted for them years before. On paper, Als wants you to believe they are different as night and day, that his Hughes is Asante’s censorious spiritual grandfather and that Fugard-who wrote some the most penetrating plays on race by examining interpersonal dynamics and human flaws- “could not completely disavow the whiteness he had in his heart”. His relationship with the texts of their work-or lack thereof-tell a different story. Hughes and Fugard were not perfect artists, but dear god, o errant children of Berkeley who demand this, who is? They faced the interior agonies, dynamics, and contradictions of the human spirit and made them into works of art that exist beyond themselves.
When faced with those problems of his own, Als reverts to slurs and searches for an audience he needs to scam. The only PC demagogue here is the one that turned this essay into the New Yorker.