The Use of the Reflective Voice in Memoir
JAMES BALDWIN AND HILTON ALS
Particularly in those cases where the events of the past don’t offer a riveting dramatic story, the reflective voice, the voice of the present interpreting and contextualizing the past, can be a crucial element in memoir. I’m probably more of this school than some writers are. Perhaps it’s a matter of temperament. Dostoyevsky, Proust, Woolf—a lot of interior investigation. Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy—very little.
Then too there may be other social or political or historical factors in the material the writer is working with that require reflection and analysis. For instance, the Japanese American writer Garrett Hongo has remarked to me that the “show don’t tell” aesthetic is a “white man’s game.” In saying this, Hongo points to the fact that through our educational system, through the culture and the society all Americans live in, the literate American reader has been taught how to view and interpret the world through the white heterosexual male lens. In contrast, if the writer is a Cuban American bisexual or a Pakistani Parsi American, she cannot count on the reader to possess the tools to contextualize and understand her experience. Even more importantly, she herself may not possess the tools to contextualize and understand her experience—very little in the culture or society around her or in her education would be useful in such a task. Indeed, this gap, this absence may be what has prompted her to write a memoir.
Certainly, this was the case for me. In Where the Body Meets Memory, the given I started with was what happened during my childhood, the ways my parents and I interacted. That was what was known. What was unknown and unconscious was the question of who my parents were—in particular, how they were shaped both by their Japanese-born parents and by their experience of being interned with other Japanese Americans during World War II. This familial and collective history was not something I understood or even knew about as a child.
Thus in certain places in my memoirs, as I present the past, I’m portraying how I understood that past as a child; at the same time, I’m delineating how, in the present, I was coming to understand that past in a greater cultural, historical, and political context through the writing.
What exactly do I mean by this? I knew, for example, that my father freaked out at my long hair and adoption of the counterculture during the late sixties and early seventies. That sort of father-son interaction was happening all over America at that time, and that historical context provides an explanation of who we both were—a Depression-era father and his baby-boomer son at the advent of the social changes wrought by the sixties.
But my father was also a Nisei, a second-generation Japanese American who had been interned because of his race; his defense of white middle-class culture/norms arose out of a different historical and political past than a typical white middle-class father of his generation. Thus in my memoir, I examine the factors of race and history and their conjunction in order to arrive at an understanding of my father’s psychology. I try to provide a picture of him coming out of the camps and reentering American society after the war ended, and I cite this as a way of depicting the formation of his psychology. That depiction is in part based on the premise that I could not understand who I had been and who I needed to become without understanding who my father was and how he became who he was.
In writing my memoirs, I came to realize that my parents’ imprisonment during World War II had a profound effect on their psyches. Both consciously and unconsciously, they believed they had to show they were not Japanese and to do that, they had to be “not 100 percent American, but 200 percent American,” as my father’s white teacher in the camps told him. To them, that meant assimilating; it meant losing their attachment to Japanese culture and, in a way, to their parents, and instead converting to Christianity; it meant trying to become like white middle-class Americans, which meant accepting a white-based racial hierarchy. And that was the way they had raised me. My own internalized racism therefore had an intricate history that started before I was born, and which I discovered only through the process of creating Turning Japanese and Where the Body Meets Memory.
One prime task of the reflective voice, then, is the interpretation of experience. Sometimes this interpretation comes with time, maturity, perspective. Sometimes it derives from knowing what happened afterward. At other times, the author acquires tools of analysis and interpretation that he didn’t possess previously—therapy, issues of identity, medical models, political theories, historical perspectives, critical theory, cultural and gender studies, and various other ideas and methods of contextualization.
In certain instances, this interpretation is an essential part of the story—or even the story. For example, once a person discovers that he’s gay or transgendered, the past means something entirely different from what it meant when he was in denial about his identity or didn’t even know such an identity was possible. A similar process may be involved with an investigation into the writer’s ethnic or racial identity.
In The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin opens with an account of his family situation; his father obviously dislikes, even hates him, and calls him ugly,* and it’s clear to the young Baldwin that his mother, like Baldwin himself, is also considered particularly ugly. Amid these difficult family dynamics, Baldwin recounts how a white teacher helped introduce him to works of literature and the cinema. The kindness and openness of this white teacher bewilder the young Baldwin, since they cut against the grain of his previous experiences with white people:
Bill Miller was not at all like the cops who had already beaten me up, she was not like the landlords who called me nigger, she was not like the storekeepers who laughed at me. I had found white people to be unutterably menacing, terrifying, mysterious—wicked: and they were mysterious, in fact, to the extent that they were wicked: the unfathomable question being, precisely, this one: what, under heaven, or beneath the sea, or in the catacombs of hell, could cause any people to act as white people acted? From Miss Miller, therefore, I began to suspect that white people did not act as they did because they were white, but for some other reason, and I began to try to locate and understand the reason.
As Baldwin’s present narrating self looks back on his past self as a child, he contrasts what the younger self understood about his world and what he did not; the latter clearly involved the question of his racial identity: “I knew that I was poor, and knew that I was black, but did not yet know what being black really meant [italics mine], what it meant, that is, in the history of my country, and in my own history.”
In the writing that follows this cinematic initiation by his white teacher, Baldwin explores his experience with various works of the America cinema. He uses those works to analyze how blacks perceive themselves, and just as significantly, how whites perceive not just themselves but blacks, and the racial realities and history of America (an example of Du Bois’s double consciousness). In the process, Baldwin provides an implied investigation of what his being black means “in the history of [his] own country, and in [his] own history.”
The rest of The Devil Finds Work thus becomes an expansive gloss on the autobiographical opening. Many of the films Baldwin discusses—and skewers—are liberal films on race from the fifties and sixties, including In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and The Defiant Ones. The latter involves two escaped convicts, played by Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, who are handcuffed together, and it attempts to show how a bond develops between the two men, despite their racial differences. As is often the case with Baldwin, he investigates the psychology of race in ways that white society still has not processed:
It is impossible to accept the premise of the story, a premise based on the profound American misunderstanding of the nature of the hatred between black and white. There is a hatred—certainly: though I am now using this word with great caution, and only in the light of the effects, or the results, of hatred. But the hatred is not equal on both sides, for it does not have the same roots. . . . Black men do not have the same reason to hate white men as white men have to hate blacks. The root of the white man’s hatred is terror, a bottomless and nameless terror, which focuses on the black, surfacing, and concentrating on this dread figure, an entity which lives only in his mind. But the root of the black man’s hatred is rage, and he does not so much hate white men as simply want them out of his way, and, more than that, out of his children’s way. . . .
Liberal white audiences applauded when Sidney, at the end of the film, jumped off the train in order not to abandon his white buddy. The Harlem audience was outraged, and yelled, Get back on the train, you fool!
The whole film is based on a premise of an equal and similarly motivated racial hatred, a premise that is part of the myth of white innocence; this myth, Baldwin implies, is what white audiences are applauding. The film never investigates, much less acknowledges, the nature of this white projection—either the belief in white innocence or the white terror of blacks—nor does the film recognize the fact that blacks have long understood the falseness of that projection. That is what makes Poitier’s action ridiculously absurd to the Harlem audience.
Throughout his Collected Essays, Baldwin lays out fundamental differences between the ways whites and blacks conceive of their identities and interpret their experiences, their social reality, and their mutual history. Whether on public housing or the black ghetto or the police or personal relationships or religion or cultural productions like film, the divergence between black and white viewpoints is not simply a difference in politics but a deep and complexly divided account of what the American experience has been and continues to be.
The implications of this for artists is a questioning of both aesthetic practice and quality. As in his critique of the absurdities in The Defiant Ones, Baldwin implicitly argues that realism in art depends on an agreement about the nature of reality, but over and over, he finds that there is no such agreement between whites and blacks; even when there is agreement about the facts—and there rarely is—there is a fundamental difference in hermeneutics, in the interpretation of those facts. This difference is always present, even when white writers or artists present their sense of reality or personal stories without any reference to the questions of race.* My argument in this book is, in part, a lesson from Baldwin: white identity in general can no longer remain a hidden or settled issue; it needs to be investigated, questioned, challenged.
Baldwin insists that we cannot make sense of the American experience without understanding that whites and blacks are intimately and inextricably connected, that neither can be properly understood without the other. As he writes at the end of his essay “Stranger in the Village,”
The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. . . . This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.
The innocence that white Americans cling to is based on a rejection of their connection to black people; this rejection in turn stems from their refusal to see blacks as equal and as who they actually are—and not the image that whites have created of blacks or their reality or their interpretation of reality; that, in turn, stems from the white refusal to see how America’s racial history has created its racial present. The result is a moral and spiritual crisis that continues into the present. As Baldwin observes, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”
Though Baldwin continues to speak to current racial conflicts and thus is often viewed in a political context, his true focus is moral and spiritual, and it is through the moral and spiritual that he arrives at the psychological, rather than through a focus on the familial or the “facts” of autobiography. Lies, moral evasions, and oppression beget a sickness of the soul, and when the soul is sick, professions of political goodwill will avail nothing. Before political change regarding race can occur, a true spiritual reckoning must take place. And as Baldwin frequently explains, one cannot face in others what one has not faced in oneself; he applies this lesson both to whites and to blacks and, as a writer must, to himself.
Thus Baldwin will not separate the personal from the political or the private from the public, and he interprets them through the moral and the spiritual; they are all inextricably interconnected, and when it comes to issues of race, he argues that we cannot make sense of our society, of what we experience and who we are without seeing all these as a whole. In the opening of his famed autobiographical essay, “Notes of a Native Son,” the public and the private, the political and the personal are woven together in a mode of expression that stems from Baldwin’s biblical roots and the allegorical ways blacks have interpreted Christianity and made it their own; this allegorical approach runs throughout Baldwin’s essays, particularly early on, when he eschews reportage or the mode of social realism, and it is part of the reason why these essays possess a timeless, classical quality:
A few hours after my father’s funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker’s chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. On the morning of the 3nd of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass.
The day of my father’s funeral had also been my nineteenth birthday. As we drove him to the graveyard, the spoils of injustice, anarchy, discontent, and hatred were all around us. It seemed to me that God himself had devised, to mark my father’s end, the most sustained and brutally dissonant of codas. And it seemed to me, too, that the violence which rose all about us as my father left the world had been devised as a corrective for the pride of his eldest son. I had declined to believe in that apocalypse which had been central to my father’s vision; very well, life seemed to be saying, here is something that will certainly pass for an apocalypse until the real thing comes along. I had inclined to be contemptuous of my father for the conditions of his life, for the conditions of our lives. When his life had ended, I began to wonder about that life and also, in a new way, to be apprehensive about my own. . . .
He had lived and died in an intolerable bitterness of spirit and it frightened me, as we drove him to the graveyard through those unquiet, ruined streets, to see how powerful and overflowing this bitterness could be and to realize that this bitterness was now mine.
Baldwin’s father is, yes, his personal father, but in this account, his father also becomes a prophet like Jeremiah as well as a Job-like figure, inseparable from the events that surround his funeral or the ways his son is struggling to understand how he himself will come to terms with the violence and hatred at the heart of American racism, the racism that broke down his father into bitterness and rage. Baldwin understands that his father’s life and the Harlem riots are intimately related, and that they present a spiritual question both for America as a country and for Baldwin as an individual soul. That Baldwin is able to yoke seamlessly all these disparate elements in a few paragraphs is part of his essential genius.
In many ways, we have still not yet come to terms with Baldwin’s vision and the greatness of his work or how his approach to the personal and autobiographical demonstrates a very different path into the issues of race and of memoir.
In memoirs where story or narrative is less prominent or present, the voice of the present narrating self often dominates or plays a more central role. The presentation of the past self in such works is perhaps less dramatically rendered, and the present narrating self focuses on questions about the past self and how that past self became the present narrating self.
In such memoirs, it is often crucial to include a more complete portrait of the present self than I sometimes see with my students’ work. At the same time, the success of this type of memoir depends less on the narrative drive of the text and more on the depth of its analysis and understanding of the past and the present and of the identities of the past and the present self and the dialectic between the two. The movement is toward greater honesty, clarity, analysis, understanding, a more complicated and/or a truer picture of both selves.
Now, in many ways, everyone who writes does so to explore the issues of his or her identity, but writers of color and indigenous writers write to access and explore the complex history, realities, and consciousness of people of color—all of which are, in various ways, denied and devalued by the dominant culture. The same can also be true for GBLT writers. At times, then, writers write against an enforced silence that they are aware of; at other times, they write against an enforced silence in themselves that they might not be aware of.
Thus perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing about their identities is exploring those areas where they as individuals participate in their own silencing, where they are afraid to explore or investigate, where there are truths that they don’t want to express because of the pain such truths uncover and the shame they recall and the wounds these writers don’t want to remember and confront.
In many memoirs by writers of color, one can see the writers struggling to unlock or free themselves from the dominant culture and let their true individual voices speak. For writers of color, the greatest struggles are sometimes not so much directly against the dominant (white) culture as against the dominant (white) culture in the writers themselves or against the ways their own communities have silenced them. But to engage in this struggle, writers must sometimes trace back to the point where the silencing began, and their struggle involves moving toward and into the origins of that wounding, that silencing. Oftentimes, the origins of this wounding or silencing are in the family. But they can also involve the society around the writer, and not just the obvious voices of forces of repression; sometimes writers must confront the ways the ostensible categories of their ethnic or racial identities can erase or flatten who they actually are.
If Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, is currently viewed as the heir to Baldwin, to my mind, a perhaps more original heir is Hilton Als, whose writings interrogate his identity as a gay black man whose mother was from Barbados. In a long memoir-like essay, “Tristes Tropiques,” that opens his collection White Girls, Als explores his extremely close friendship with a black man he dubs “Sir or Lady.” Although the two are never lovers, and SL sleeps with a number of white women, SL and Als are viewed not just as a couple but almost as twins in the cultural and fashion world of New York in which they work and socialize.
As he recounts the history of their friendship, Als explores the two men’s complicated relationships both with actual “white girls” and with cultural representations of “white girls”: “By the time we met we were anxious to share our black American maleness with another person who knew how flat and not descriptive those words were since they did not include how it had more than its share of Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker in it, women who passed their ‘white girlhood’ together.”
Als traces the influences of “white girls” on himself, moving from Daisy and Jordan to second-wave feminists like Shulamith Firestone to, in a later piece, his seeing Vivian Leigh for the first time in Gone with the Wind: “I would have made her forget that I was colored and that she could lynch me if she wanted because I knew I could make her love me.” Such a statement contains a clear-eyed acknowledgment of how complexly people’s identities are both influenced and configured by the culture around them, for the younger Als’s feelings about Leigh stem not just from the racial hierarchy and oppression she represents but also from his nascent feelings about his gender and orientation and the ways his identification with Leigh allows a path beyond the rigid gender or racial categories the society has offered him.
As Als makes clear, trying to describe himself, SL, and their relationship requires a new language, one not provided even in the black culture that they’ve inherited and live within:
No narrative preceded us. We were not “menchildren” in a promised land, as Claude Brown would have it. We did not consider ourselves as having “no name in the street,” as James Baldwin did himself. We did not suffer the existential crisis that afflicts some male Negro intellectuals, as Harold Cruse presumed. We did not have “hot” souls that needed to be put on ice, as Eldridge Cleaver might have said. We were not escapees from Langston Hughes’s “Simple” stories. We were nothing like Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas, nor did we wear white masks, as Frantz Fanon might have deduced, incorrectly. We saw no point of reference in The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger, by Cecil Brown. . . . In short, we were not your standard Negro story, or usual Negro story. . . . We were not interested in the sentimental tale that’s attached itself to the Negro male body by now: the embodiment of isolation. We had each other, another kind of story worth telling.
In a better world, I shouldn’t have to comment on certain aspects of this passage: First, it is addressed to an audience familiar with these literary references and what they signify in the history of black culture. Second, if the reader is not familiar with these authors or history, the reader will not fully appreciate the impact of what Als is saying here or how it might be perceived by different black readers, given its witty, ironic tone. Third, Als refuses to simplify or ignore the intersections that make up his identity, whether of race, gender, orientation, or, later in the book, ethnicity and the West Indian influences of his mother’s background.
For example, in the essay “Philosopher or Dog,” Als critiques how The Autobiography of Malcolm X erases Malcolm’s Grenadian mother, whose existence posits an alternative narrative and identity that Malcolm never acknowledged. Als argues that that absent narrative permanently alters his view of Malcolm and constitutes a fundamental flaw in The Autobiography. Among other things, Als believes that Malcolm makes much more of his white grandfather’s importance in his mother’s family than would have occurred in matriarchal Caribbean culture. Als implicitly uses this cultural investigation of Malcolm to challenge and complicate Als’s portrait of his mother in his own writings; in doing this, he calls out the ways certain black writers create a one-dimensional portrait of the mother as defined solely by her suffering (one of those ready-made chains of signifying blackness that Morrison alludes to critically in Playing in the Dark):
Writers of a color who find their expression—so called—in their “otherness” and “difference” do so in a manner comfortable to the legions who buy their work not to read it, oh no, but because these writers confirm the nonideas stupid people assume about otherness and difference—two words that define privilege in the epoch of some.
If pressed by the thumb of thought, where does the idea of this otherness and differences come from? It is an acquired habit really. One learns it in infancy, sitting on the knee of someone—perhaps Mom—who may not be unlike oneself in a respect: her appearance. Appearances speak not of themselves but of preceding generations and the haunting of each subsequent one with: Because I appear not unlike you, we are each other. What folly! The belief that the dimensions of some mother’s mask, say, fitting—becoming—one’s physiognomy is oneself. What manipulation! To appropriate her mask of a different sex—if you are a boy—a different generation—if you are a child—so experientially different—if you are a person—because experience is an awful thing. Truly, who “loves” it? In order not to have it—experience—we do a number of things, chief among them speaking to stupid people who cannot possibly understand us. . . .
The cowardly experience described previously—applying that mother’s mask, say, to protect oneself. How easily this is done!
Let me make clear: Als’s critique here of “otherness and difference” is not the same as the writing instructor who tells students of color to avoid writing about race or being “political.” Instead, Als is trying to get at the “difference” in any particular individual of color’s experience, the specifics of what makes that person and that writer an individual and not simply a member of a race or a group. He is talking about the ways writers of color can sometimes avoid the pain and hard work of discovering and exploring the singularity of who they are and what they have experienced. The choice is not between being a member of a group and being an individual; instead one must understand how one is both, how contradictions and complexities arise from and within this dialectic.
Als is the Pulitzer Prize–winning theater critic for The New Yorker, and in his reviews of black theater artists, he demonstrates an informed and empathetic understanding of their worldview and experiences; yet he also critiques those instances where they drift toward stereotype or generalization or fall short of three dimensionality or full complexity. That he brings the same critical eye to his own work is part of what makes him such a provocative and insightful essayist and memoirist.
Memoir is a reenvisioning the past self and thus coming to terms with the limitations of one’s past self.
A person’s blind spots can stem from personal psychological blocks, but they can also result from larger historical, cultural, or societal limitations. T. S. Eliot argued that a writer should be aware that people of other times and other places have thought and felt and acted differently than those around her. The more the writer is able to do this, the more sophisticated she is—and thus the writer will be more aware of the alternative ways of viewing both herself and the world.
Sexism; ethnocentricism; class, racial, or orientation bias; or simply insularity—these are some of the charges that arise when a writer or narrator is not aware of viewpoints other than her own. This blindness may have a psychological component, but it also involves culture, education, politics, and life experience.
One implication of all this for the memoirist is that the truth is not simply what happened. It is how what happened is interpreted, how it is contextualized, how it is evaluated and analyzed.
* As a child Baldwin did not know that the man he referred to as his father was not his biological father.
* In contrast to Baldwin’s understanding that his identity as a black man required an examination of the psyche of whites, Hemingway felt he didn’t have to interpret his experience for himself or for others, nor did he need to consider how blacks viewed him; his place in society and his identity were seemingly self-evident—he was a white heterosexual male. That was obviously not the case for Baldwin, who was both black and homosexual. The “show don’t tell” aesthetic could not work for him.