For a little while—and probably not for too much longer—I’ve been staying again in Hyde Park, where I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and last week I was lucky enough to hear Claudia Rankine perform and discuss, among other things, a piece you can find on her website, which I’d urge you to read if you haven’t already. It’s a talk she gave a month ago at an AWP panel, articulating her reaction to Tony Hoagland’s widely praised 2003 poem “The Change” and its depiction of a tennis match between a white woman and “that big black girl from Alabama, / cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms, / some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite,” watched on TV by a speaker who, like Hoagland, is white and male, and who confesses that he “couldn’t help wanting / the white girl to come out on top, / because she was one of my kind, my tribe.” (And so on.) Hoagland replied to Rankine’s initial remarks with a letter which she also read, both at AWP and in Chicago last week, and which you can also read on her site—in which he accuses Rankine of being “naive [on] the subject of American racism” for having been, as a poet and a black woman, hurt and offended by this poem; he adds that “[a] poem is not a teddy bear” and that “[n]othing kills the elastic, life-giving spirit of humor more quickly—have you noticed?—than political correctness.”
Yeah, in short, he goes there. (As Katie B recently tweeted, “I love it when people complain about political correctness […]. It tells you exactly who they don’t see as people deserving respect.”) On the utter inadequacy and irrelevance of Hoagland’s response, I don’t really have much to add to what Sara Jaffe writes in a wonderful post which I would again urge you to read in full:
In Hoagland’s response, he ignored all but the first layer—the personal—of Rankine’s response to his poem. Rankine said, These words are hurtful, and Hoagland said No they’re not, because I didn’t intend them to be. He said, Because you’re making it personal, I’m going to tell you that you’re naïve about American racism. He said, essentially, he is saying that he has more authority to speak about race than does Rankine. When Hoagland writes, in whoever’s voice, that the speaker wanted the white girl to win the tennis match, because “she was one of my kind, my tribe,” he is (he thinks) boldly addressing race as a white person; when Rankine discusses the questions that his language raised for her, he tells her that she’s missing the point.
Hoagland may be aware of the legacy of racism in this country, but he is unaccountable to the power that that legacy has bequeathed to him. And one aspect of that power is the power to name (“We suffer from the condition of being addressable” [a line from Judith Butler, quoted by Rankine]). In “The Change,” when Hoagland employed an array of racist, exoticizing stereotypes to describe the black tennis player, he flaunted that power. He used language irresponsibly and stridently, without regard for where it fell. If there is another language, an alternate discourse, that can possibly ever serve as a challenge to the dominant mode of careless naming, it is one that illuminates, at every step how connected we all are to each other, and to the institutions in which we live with, in, and in spite of. That is the language that Claudia Rankine practices and one that I was so grateful and moved to hear.
Rankine ended her presentation last week by encouraging everyone in attendance, and any of our friends as well, to reply to an open letter she recently wrote seeking thoughts from those who write critically or creatively about (or not about) race. As a two-time grad-school dropout and the coauthor of a blog that doesn’t have many readers (but we appreciate you!), I haven’t really decided yet whether I think I’m in a position to submit something. (The deadline indicated is March 11.) But one of the lines in the open letter that serve as potential “jumping off points” for responses asks: “How do we invent the language of racial identity—that is, not necessarily constructing the ‘scene of instruction’ about race, but create the linguistic material of racial speech/thought?” And this reminded me of one actual, particular scene of instruction—a movie scene, set in a classroom, which is also a scene that seems to want to teach us something (about race)—from Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World.
I’ve wondered before whether I had the energy or the interest to write something about, on the one hand, my complicated affection for Clowes’ comic book (part of which has to do with my memory of a teenage friendship with an androgynous punk kid who, I’ve realized in retrospect, was a lot like a male Enid Coleslaw); and, on the other hand, the confidence with which I would say that Zwigoff’s version, written by Clowes and himself, and featuring fine performances by Thora Birch and and Scarlett Johansson and numerous other things that should be just right, is one of my least favorite movies in the world. Like Mike Barthel, I don’t really take any pleasure in being the fan of a comic who complains that the movie’s worse. And people whose work I enjoy and respect have praised this movie, and at least once I’ve tried to give it another chance, watched the first few minutes, and given up. I don’t want to write at length about everything that bothers me in Zwigoff’s Ghost World—maybe another time?—so I’ll just say that what bothers me most of all is the way the story of Enid and Rebecca, Clowes’ fiercely sardonic and alienated high-school graduates, gets shoehorned into Terry Zwigoff’s obsessions (“If I connected with something, then I included it in the script”) and disastrously turned into a treatise on the creeping fascist tide of political correctness.
The movie is a very free adaptation, with lots of additions, subtractions, and recombinations—and, promisingly, a tendency to seize on ambiguous or problematic areas in the comic and work through them—but almost every change is torqued, gratingly, in that way. So, for instance, the original Ghost World is a story in pictures about two attractive teen girls, written and drawn by a straight adult man, the thorniness of which the comic implicitly half-addresses at such moments as Enid’s visit to a signing by her favorite cartoonist, “David Clowes,” and her immediate horrified departure and later dismissal of him as an “old perv.” In the film, “David Clowes” has been merged with several other figures (including the periodically glimpsed psychic Bob Skeetes, whose ghostly and redemptive reappearance on the beach is just one reason why the closing pages are so spectacular) and turned into Steve Buscemi’s Seymour, through whose body we effectively hear a team of male filmmakers announce, Of course a 50-year-old man can have a sexual relationship with a girl who just graduated from high school. What, you have some kind of problem with this? Next! Or another example, the one that’s relevant here: the original Ghost World is a story about a largely white social environment, in which people of color are seen on the margins. The movie seems to recognize this, and to want to be a movie about race, or about whiteness, even in the way “The Change” wants to be a poem about whiteness. So there are more people of color, who I think function without exception (unless they’re blues singers from the early 20th century) as simply more people to be subjected to these white teenagers’ withering negative gaze; and there’s an extended narrative thread involving a remedial summer art class that Enid must take, and a decades-old, grossly racist poster from the fried-chicken place where Seymour works, and the consequences of Enid’s decision to display the poster to her class, and later to the public, as a piece of found art that comments on “how racism used to be more out in the open and now it’s hidden.”
The consequences are of course not good: at the public show, no one understands irony or art, and so Enid’s school forces her teacher to give her a failing grade; when it’s discovered that she got the poster from Seymour, he loses his job at the chicken place. And these events are foreshadowed when Enid first shows the poster to her class. In “Enid as Situationist: Commodification, Alienation and Authenticity in Ghost World“—an essay notable for reading moments like these in exactly the way I think Zwigoff and Clowes want them to be read—Doug Mann describes the scene:
As mentioned before, Enid uses a half-century old Cook’s Chicken sign as a piece of “found art” to make a comment on how racism hasn’t disappeared, but gone underground. It has been whitewashed by large corporations wanting to avoid bad publicity. The reaction of her classmates is interesting: one doesn’t like it, a second calls it “totally weak”, a third says that it’s “not right,” all without being able to explain why. These infantile consumers are simply parroting politically correct rhetoric in response to Enid’s more critical sense of history. Ironically, Enid’s hippy narcissist teacher Roberta supports her détournement against the majority opinion, perhaps flashing back to her radical youth.
When you write a passage like this, about “interestingly” “infantile consumers” who “lack a critical sense of history,” the kind of detail that really doesn’t work to your advantage, and that you therefore more or less have to avoid disclosing, is that the third student quoted—the one captured by Zwigoff’s camera as she says, with a heavy, weary sadness, “Yeah. It’s not right.”—looks like this:
This shot lasts no longer than two seconds, and its purpose in the framework of Ghost World is to present one of several voices that we, as viewers on Enid’s side, are encouraged to dismiss immediately because we bear the uncomfortable but undeniable burden of knowing better; but for me it’s the most important shot in the movie, because, with it, the movie implodes. Or it becomes a movie about ghostliness in a way it can’t itself fully comprehend. I don’t know just what was going through Clowes’ and Zwigoff’s minds as they wrote and shot this scene, or what was going through the mind of Janece Jordan, whose sole movie appearance is this one, and who’s credited as “Black Girl – Art Class.” But I also don’t know how anyone can tolerate for a second the suggestion that this girl isn’t “able to explain why” she’s reacting the way she is—or, rather, that she should have to. She is addressable. She’s sitting in front of an aestheticized attack on her body, an image conceived and crafted to imply that people who look like her are less than human. When her pain, or Claudia Rankine’s pain or anyone’s, is ignored or discounted in the service of an argument about how racism persists, only more insidiously than before, and so it’s important to bring it to the surface—who’s the one actually acting as if racism were a thing of the past, of the ghost world, to be dispassionately scrutinized by universal subjects of the post-racial present? Who’s the one being naive about American racism?
(Henry A. Giroux has a fascinating article on Ghost World as both an indictment and a reflection of the neoliberalism that America’s young people are expected to accept, and it’s in this sense that I think his argument works brilliantly, too, as an account of the movie’s racial politics: “[Ghost World] resonates too intimately with a major aim of neoliberalism, which is to ‘make politics disappear by, in part, producing cynicism in the population.’ Cynicism does more than confirm irony as the last resort of the defeated; it also substitutes resignation and angst for any viable notion of resistance, politics, and transformation” . In this classroom scene, white resignation, white angst, and ultimately white cynicism are substituted for any notion of a politics of cross-racial solidarity that would attempt to recognize the complications of white privilege, or respect the voices of people of color themselves.)
There’s a Facebook fan page called “My life is filled with Ghost World moments…,” and one of the moments listed is “when Enid brings in the […] poster and the girl says ‘it’s not right.'” Tony Hoagland, I think, had a Ghost World moment. (You’re making an important statement about racism, as a white person, and then a black person just has to step in and ruin it for you!) Last week Claudia Rankine quoted a white lesbian friend who’d said that she was afraid of talking about race, because she knew she would always say the wrong thing; Rankine told us that what she hoped to see were more situations where people “said the wrong thing, but then kept going.” So, basically, I want someone to do a Gus Van Sant-style shot-for-shot remake of Ghost World, all the way up to this moment, and then swerve away and turn the movie into a long classroom discussion of how words and images work the way they do, how racial identity affects the lives of these students, what Enid’s intentions were, why her classmates feel how they feel, and where to go from there. I also want Tony Hoagland to actually apologize to Claudia Rankine, if not for writing “The Change” then for telling her she was wrong to react the way she did. But I don’t really think either of those things is going to happen.
Finally, because I think it bears repeating: that racism is just as pernicious when it’s hidden beneath the surface isn’t exactly something we white folks were the first to realize. When we insinuate otherwise, it’s an act of erasure. James Baldwin visits San Francisco in 1963: