Wednesday, October 29, 2014

High All the Time

I went crazy in the spring of 1999. I got a letter that spring from my mother and in it she included a recent picture of herself holding her granddaughter in front of an iron bar fence. My niece was slipping forward towards the camera. The breeze blew my mother’s hair across her face as she tried to hold on to her granddaughter. That picture affected me in ways that I can’t fully explain. It placed me in the heartbreaks of my childhood. It evoked feelings and experiences that I shared with my brother as children that I can’t bring myself to ever really address openly. What happened to us was not unique. We weren’t the first or last Salvadoran children left behind to navigate poverty and neglect by parents who moved to the U.S. in order to make some money. But the sociological dimension of what happened to us does not erase the effects of that experience. The picture prodded at something half forgotten but easily inflamed in me. And so I got drunk. For a couple of months.

I drank and drank and drank. I started drinking in the morning. I would take a good friend of mine from our 9 a.m. language class to have bagels and beer. I would drink at home in between classes and at the bars after classes and into the evening. Most nights, I would leave my girlfriend and go to a bar where I kept running into the same girl, a classmate from a course on literary theory. I wanted to destroy something in myself and so I started walking that girl home. I wound up in her bed. My girlfriend once found us drinking together on campus and I acted as if nothing was wrong. When she left, I kept drinking with the other girl. I once bumped into this other girl, another classmate from another literary theory class, in the library and invited her to have drinks with me later at the bar. I passed out before we ever met her and forgot all about the invitation until a couple of months later when that same girl yelled at me for asking her to another drink as if nothing had happened. I fell off bikes drunk. I fell over walking. I got into trouble with the police. I made scenes and embarrassed myself over and over. I broke my girlfriend’s heart but she somehow forgave me. I didn’t want to be sober. Eventually and for equally mysterious reasons, I stopped wanting to be drunk and so the craziness dissipated.

In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz says that Anglos drink to forget and that Mexicans drink to remember. As with any of these broad comparisons, things are probably more occluded by it than they are clarified. But it is true that many people in this country consider the self-destruction of intoxication to be an act of forgetting. Tov Lo’s “Habits” speaks to this idea. “You’re gone and I gotta stay/High all the time/To keep you off my mind,” she wails in a voice with such high emotion that it makes my throat catch every time I hear it. But intoxication isn’t just about forgetting or getting distracted. I’m not sure it’s just about remembering either, though I know that drinking and remembering go hand in hand for many of us at times. Maybe when I went crazy I drank to fill the present with a different set of memories, memories that could compete with the old wounds. It wasn’t drinking to negate the past or to bring it back to life in a mania. Rather, I was perhaps trying to invent a new past--equally fucked up but for different reasons--that would balance the existing bruises. Bukowski says that “some people never go crazy./what truly horrible lives/they must lead.” I know that’s a romantic sentiment that ignores some clear social and psychological realities. But beneath the illusions or maybe because of them, there is something in those words that speaks to me.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

I’m Also About That Bass

In The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James asks why slave masters routinely tortured and injured their slaves, that is, why did they deliberately harm their own property. James reminds us that slave masters did so because no matter how much they degraded their possessions, the black people bearing the torture nonetheless retained the full measure of their humanity, with all of the dignity and resistance that went along with it. Slave masters beat and maimed their slaves in order to protect themselves. They sought through their daily violence to subdue the rebellious spirit of people in chains. Slave masters regularly whipped slaves for minor infractions and poured salt, alcohol, and hot ashes in the bleeding wounds. They poured burning wax over their bodies, poured boiling sugar cane on them, burned them alive, and roasted them over slow fires. They filled them with gunpowder and blew them up. They buried them in the ground and covered their heads with sugar or honey so that ants and flies would eat the flesh off their faces. They made them eat excrement or drink urine. Many of these tortures were common enough to have names: blowing up a slave was called “to burn a little powder in the arse of a nigger.” And of course they forced them to work for the benefit of the master, forced them to have children to increase the master’s property, and forced them to try to accept their inferiority.

After that long history of torture and degradation, black people after emancipation were kept in the margins of society through the continuation of racial terror. White mobs routinely tortured and killed black people for questioning white supremacy. Black people were denied their basic rights—the right to educate their children, the right to choose where they should live, the right to be paid fairly for their work, the right to move freely within society without fear of being abused, the right to be treated with basic human decency. The continuing disinvestment in black communities, the continuing criminalization of blackness, the continuing devaluing of black life are all part of a systemic problem that continually pushes African-Americans to the periphery of American society.

Something that we may recognize as black culture emerged out of and to make sense of these social realities.  By black culture I mean more than the literature, art, or music made by black artists that has played such a key role in the development of American culture in the last four centuries. I mean more than the styles, postures, and sensibilities created in black milieus that have transformed American popular culture. I mean everything, including the distinctive vernaculars associated with African-American people. Everything, including how black people talk, is related to their coping with and sometimes even flourishing under the burden of white racial terror. White racial terror.

And so when I hear a wonderfully catchy song like Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” I feel conflicted. The song is bubbly and happy, harmonic and rhythmic, playful and positive. Only a snob or a monster wouldn’t like that song. But the song not only depends on the musical genres developed in the Black Atlantic, Trainor’s voice itself is inflected by black patterns of speech. Which is fine, I suppose. It’s a free country, as they say. But it does gall more than a little that the people that benefit today from the history of racial terror get to mimic the voices of the victims of that terror. White people can sound “black” if they want, no one can tell them otherwise. But they do so fully aware that they don’t have to bear the burden or the consequences of black history. So fuck those people.