The Commodification of Black Culture: From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Ariana Grande

I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin for a class in the last month, and I’m stunned at the aftermath it had on American culture. From traveling theatre companies with white actors in blackface, to little collectable postcards; from children’s picture books of the slave narrative, to framed lithographs that middle-class families could hang up over their mantelpieces– popular American culture hooked onto the soap-opera-like novel and profited greatly from its popularity. And it got me thinking: people love to commodify black culture when it is beneficial, and drop it the moment it’s deemed un-cool or unprofitable. It’s written deep into America’s history, and keeps emerging in contemporary culture as well– the most recent I can think of being Ariana Grande’s subtle but unmistakable plagiarism of lyrics from black rappers and hip-hop artists. I’d always been conscious of the magnitude of cultural appropriation in America, but it was until reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin that I realized the full scope of America’s entrenched history in stealing or distorting marginalized cultures for profit. It’s disgusting.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written in installments in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white abolitionist. The book reads like a soap-opera: overly dramatic with characters breaking out in sudden all-important realizations and constantly crying; the black characters and their lives are romanticized and the “good” white characters are often portrayed as being saviors (see: little Eva). Though it attempts to humanize slaves– a concept quite foreign to nineteenth century Americans– Stowe, as a comfortable white woman from the North who has experienced not even a fraction of what the characters in her book have experienced. In short, it relies heavily on stereotypes and caricatures. The book’s overall aim is to resist the institution of slavery, and it was wildly successful at that aim; but just because it’s anti-slavery certainly didn’t make it anti-racist.

I think these points of in-authenticity allowed people to capitalize on the success of the book. In today’s parlance, Uncle Tom’s Cabin went viral. As my professor put it, it spread like an internet meme. Lots of knick-knacks and household collectible were created, many paintings, records, children’s picture books, translations, postcards. My class visited the Clement’s library behind Hatcher to view some of these pieces; here are some examples:

Eliza crosses the Ohio River which divides slave states from non-slave states. She looks practically white.
Collectable postcards from Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The letter from Terry’s Big Two Car Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company.

There were even traveling theatre companies that performed Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a play for entertainment, mainly with white actors in blackface. In a letter from one such theatre company to the owner of a theatre, the company explains that they have not only white actors, but black actors, describing the black actors in language I’m too disgusted to reproduce here. I was stunned and horrified, the irony of the situation painfully bitter. These companies were using slaves for their own gain. They took an anti-slavery book and used it for profit while perpetuating the very thing the book tried to destroy. And then it hit me– of course. America won’t give up racism until it’s not economically beneficial. And for all of its history, racism has been wildly beneficial.

It’s why we still see atrocious rates of mass incarceration of black men, why we see police brutality, why we see blatant acts of cultural appropriation by celebrities. It’s economically beneficial. Ariana Grande, with visibly darker and tanned skin, her lyrics thick with a “blackcent”, her music videos with black girls as a way to “make up” for her appropriation, and the outright plagiarism of her lyrics, adds to this recurrent narrative. Of course, just like all the actors from the theatre company, and like the creators of Uncle Tom’s Cabin paraphernalia, and perhaps even like Stowe, Ariana Grande and so many other people of privilege will walk away unscathed, leaving behind a population that continues to be hurt and injustice that goes on, and on, and on.

 

All images courtesy of University of Michigan’s Clements Library. Special thanks to Professor Sara Blair from the English Department and Clayton Lewis, Curator of Graphics Material at the Clements Library.

References: La Case de L’Oncle Tom. / Heroisme de L’Amour Maternal. Paris: Chez Mine´, [ca. 1850s]. [Lithograph broadside, hand colored]
Onkel Tom’s Hütte. Serie 2. Elmshorn, Holstein: Wagner & Co., [ca. 1928]. [Six color lithograph collecting cards]
Terry’s Big Two-Car Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company. [Little Sioux, Iowa]: Terry’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin Co. circa 1910. [Promotional circular letter]

a few needful poems

If you don’t read much poetry, I would highly recommend these poems– they’re beautiful and poignant, and impart a deep trove of wisdom on the subtleties of race relations in America in such a small amount of space. 

“Theme For English B” by Langston Hughes

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47880/theme-for-english-b

When his white instructor prompts their class to write something that comes out of them naturally, Hughes questions what it means to write something truthful or authentic about himself, especially when the world often shapes how he views himself. The poem gets to its central conflict of the definition of the self when Hughes questions, “So will my page be colored that I write?/ Being me, it will not be white./ But it will be/ a part of you, instructor./ You are white–/ yet a part of me, as I am a part of you./ That’s American.” Essentially, he is proposing that though he has a different background than his instructor, they are both part of each other and the larger American narrative, whether they like it or not. Though this is true, Hughes still acknowledges, at the end of the poem, that there are still power imbalances in place that make equal and open exchange of ideas difficult: “As I learn from you. I guess you learn from me–/ although you’re older– and white–/ and somewhat more free.”

“Meeting A Stranger” by Sharon Olds

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/505268

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3w_uaeYJi7c (this is her reading the poem– she’s spectacular at performing her poetry, so it’s worth a watch)

This poem is from the perspective of a white person painfully aware of the connotations of being served by a black woman in a restaurant in the contemporary world. She begins the poem by discussing how the two of them meeting– Olds, a white woman, and this stranger, a black woman– is unequivocally joined by their mothers and fathers and “what they might have/ thought of each other”, and by their people and how they must have historically interacted with one another. She says that these ghosts of their pasts are faint– “quivers of reflected/ light on a wall”, but their presence is palpable. This poem is not from the perspective of a minority black person reflecting on their messy slew of identities working with and against each other, like in “Theme For English B”; rather, this poem is from the perspective of a white woman who recognizes her privilege and the American history that has allowed her– nay, rewarded her– for her ignorance of the suffering of African American peoples. Whether or not the history is so obvious in the room is not truly the question here– rather it is that she is recognizing it and taking responsibility for it.

“Poem For the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent Well-Read Person, Could Believe in the War Between Races” by Lorna Dee Cervantes

http://aspotlightoflornadeecervantes.blogspot.com/p/poem-for-young-white-man-who-asked-me.html

This poem is loosely addressed to a young white man, though the address is not as personal and intimate as it is in Olds’ “Meeting a Stranger”. There is something defiant, pained, and outraged about the tone of the poem, as though the whole thing is just an trembling, explosive tirade against the young white man’s ignorant comment. It does not carry the contemplative, semi-idealistic, ruminating tone that is prevalent in Hughes’ and Olds’ poems. In the last part of the poem, Cervantes describes herself as “a poet/ who yearns to dance on rooftops” and enjoy and understand life. However, she says she is constantly reminded that “this is not/ my land/ and this is my land.” The last few lines of the poem bring back its central question: Cervantes concludes that although there may not be a war on races specifically labelled in that way, there is certainly still unrest and dispute– “there is war”.

Am I Stupid?

I’ve come across a problem over and over again that really embarrasses me as a English major and philosophy major and writer and avid reader and student for a long time who has been told that I’m quite good at those things, and it’s that sometimes I don’t know what the hell I’m reading.

For the past half decade of my life (in other words, when I stopped reading YA novels) I’ve been wondering about the fuss around certain canonical writers, like James Joyce and Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf, so I made a list of books I wanted to read for 2019. I started out with Woolf, reading Mrs. Dalloway, which is an entire novel dedicated to a single day in a woman’s life as she plans a party. It’s a very interior, psychological look into the details of everyday life, and the prose is dense and concentrated and shimmering with poetry— so much that it’s almost blinding to read. It’s like taking a shot of thick, concentrated tonic until you’re so intellectually inebriated that you literally cannot think, much less follow Mrs. Dalloway as she flits between dreaming about her lost hopes and which flower arrangement looks better.

Of course it’s brilliant, but kind of excruciating to read. It makes me wonder what was so wrong about reading trashy YA. And it’s not just Mrs. Dalloway that I’ve experienced this pain, it’s Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 541, it’s Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it’s Kurt Vonnegut and Daniel Defoe and at times even F Scott Fitzgerald— and I’m told that these are the greats, these are the masters of the English language and their work is the stunning epitome of writing at its finest— and I feel so so stupid.

I used to think that good writing was supposed to be kind of allusive, like it had to be mysterious and hard to understand in order to be meaningful, as though the lack of coherence or the superfluous language was what created this illusion of meaning. It’s like instead of saying “this is a gray crayon”, you say, “I twirl between my fingers the truncated trunk of an elephant, gas of overcast clouds in cylinders, the cigarette, intoxicating the youth with their ability to draw, to live, to create.” Did you know I was talking about a crayon? NO! That’s just bad writing!

And I’m not saying that Virginia Woolf is a bad writer. She’s amazing. Kurt Vonnegut’s amazing. Ray Bradbury is (belches) amazing. I just wasn’t trying hard enough. I need to read with a pen in hand, a book that I can write in the margins, possibly a few people to discuss it with for that good ol’ intellectual discourse. I need to put in more effort, more labor to reap the benefits of such masterful works. But how much effort, how much labor, how much highbrow diction and intertextuality and obscure allusions and plots buried so deep within poetic language that it’s barely there— how much before it takes the pleasure out of reading? Before I can write it off as being pretentious? Before I stop feeling like I’m stupid?

And maybe this entire essay is just me musing about my own stupidity— maybe genius works, in some way, by the power dynamic of the master showing off and the reader shaking his head in obedient confusion, like “oh yeah, you are a really good writer, because… I have no idea what the hell you’re saying!” Maybe it’s a failure of the education system to teach us to be better readers, maybe it’s a failure of the culture of the twenty-first century to want things fast and to want them NOW, even our literature, or maybe we’re all just a bunch of foundering idiots— or maybe it’s just me— but in the meantime, I really do want to know what all the fuss is about with this godforsaken book. I got my pen. Got my copy that has decent sized margins. I just gotta keep reading.

I’m Growing Skeptical of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel…

[Warning: Spoilers ahead. Please read only if you’re familiar with the show– I don’t want to ruin it for anyone!]

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From the very first episode of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel starring Rachel Brosnahan, I was utterly, breathlessly hooked. From the cinematography to the flouncy ‘50s costume design to the vibrant pastels to the gorgeous New York landscapes– from the premise of a high-spirited, hilarious young mom who finds herself suddenly divorced by her flighty jerk of a husband, to her assent into New York’s comedy scene as a woman– from her caustically funny manager to her down-to-earth father and her new season 2 boyfriend– the jokes, the conversation, the writing– everything about this TV show, at first glance, is extremely well done. I loved it, and still do. But Season 2 made me suddenly weary of all its flaws. I found out, moreover, that the show is written by Amy Sherman-Palladino, of Gilmore Girls fame. From where Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel ended, knowing the poor large-scale writing for Gilmore Girls, and after deconstructing the subtly problematic premises of Midge’s character, I’ve come to seriously fear for the fate of the rest of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

The last episode of Season 2 ended with Midge getting a call from a famous singer asking her to tour with him in Europe for six months. This is big break she’s been waiting for a year now since she’d seriously started doing comedy. However, by the end of the episode and season, she realizes that her focus on her career necessarily means she’ll lose her domestic family life. The last minute of the series shows Midge going back to her ex-husband to spend only one night with someone who she knows loves her. Theoretically, a woman being torn between domestic, conventional life and pursuing a career in comedy in the fifties could be a very compelling and believable conflict, especially in the midst of a divorce– but this really isn’t the case for Midge. If there’s anything that Susie Meyerson reminds us of over and over again, it’s that Midge is extremely well off and has multiple support systems. She doesn’t really need to choose between her career and her family– she has parents and a maid at home who basically provide totally free child care and housing, she has an ex-husband who is still gaga over her and willing to beat up any blundering male comic who gets in her way, a boyfriend who– on top of being an accomplished surgeon and owning a mansion of a New York apartment– is head over heels for Midge and wants her to live out her dreams of being a comedian, she has a manager who works tirelessly to book her in the best gigs in and out of New York– and yet– you really expect me, an intelligent audience member, to believe that Midge has to choose between her career and the rest of her life? It’s bullshit.

And… this is where I remember that the show was written by Amy Sherman-Palladino. She’s a fantastic writer and director, always seamlessly building engaging and funny dialogue, directing gorgeous scenes and settings. It’s all fun to watch episode to episode. But her work breaks down upon closer inspection, and, if there’s anything I know from watching Gilmore Girls, Palladino’s writing meanders and gets lost somewhere in the middle of the series, and I’m worried this will also be the fate of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Both series center around a powerful female character archetype– like smart, good-natured, and hard-working Rory Gilmore and lively, stunning, hilarious Miriam Maisel– who have huge networks of support, wealth, and privilege, and whose only downfall, apparently, is being a woman. These characters don’t seem to have a lot of flaws, they’re perfectly poised. In short, it’s just a fantasy that it becomes a little hard to believe at some point. Emily Nussbaum in an article called “Hello, Gorgeous!” for The New Yorker sums it up perfectly: “The verbal anachronisms (“totally”), the sitcom clams (“Good talk!”), the cloying Disneyfication of Midge’s Jewish family…. Her marvellousness comes from the fact that she’s immune, a self-adoring alpha whose routines feel like feminist TED talks, with some “fucks” thrown in.”

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is, like Gilmore Girls, a sweeping, glittering fantasy of a powerful and ambitious young woman storming the world that Americans, and especially American women, seem to want to right now. It’s not a bad fantasy– in fact, it’s quite good and engaging and hilarious, a distraction from exhausting dystopias like The Handmaid’s Tale. But like all fantasies, it’s not an accurate reflection of sexism or the stakes of chasing a reckless dream. I’ll definitely keep watching the show– but not without a grain of salt.

Here’s Why Rupi Kaur’s Poetry Sucks

Rupi Kaur is an Indian-Canadian poet who rose to fame for short enjambed poems, usually with themes about sexual abuse and self-love, posted on instagram accompanied by an original illustration. She is the frontrunner of a new culture of “insta-poets”, taking her success on the internet to ground-breaking commercial success in bookstores all around the world. For her readers, Kaur is a brave young woman speaking fearlessly and simply about extremely difficult themes. And I can see the appeal as someone who, too, has scoured social media like Pinterest and Tumblr for some light poetry reading, but to think that Kaur’s poetry is good poetry– that its writing is actually adding merit to the literary canon– is a gross overration of Kaur’s talent as a poet. If anything, her poems are visually stunning, give the illusion of depth, and she’s willing to give voice to the suffering of young women– but they are not actually good. Here are some of her poems:

Image result for rupi kaur poetryImage result for rupi kaur poetry

Kaur has mastered the art of making her poems seem profound, especially by capitalizing on the lazy technique of lines breaks. She writes moderately interesting sentences– usually about something taboo and difficult, like rape or confidence or being a woman of color to give an extra sense of thematic intensity– breaks them apart, strips them of punctuation, and adds an appealing image to compliment it to give the sense of a verse form. I can do it here:

a flower

grows sprouts bursts

in my heart

every time i

contemplate the

garden of

our love.

The original sentence: A flower grows, sprouts, bursts, in my heart every time I contemplate the garden of our love.

Kaur’s lazy use of line breaks has been ridiculed by many Twitter users:

Image result for rupi kaur meme

Kaur’s poetry states obvious, mildly interesting stream-of-consciousness shower thoughts in visually appealing ways. For a young audience who wants to read something about their problems about love or being a woman, Kaur is a championing figure who doesn’t shy away from these intense themes. Her poetry is extremely accessible and readable. You don’t have to read it multiple times in order to understand it, don’t have to crack open a dictionary in order to know what the words mean, don’t need an english degree to unknot the mess of allusions and symbolism and critical theory– it just means what it means. Doesn’t this make it good?

Well, no. Poetry isn’t good because it’s simple, and it’s also not good because it’s complex. Poetry is good because it says something interesting in an interesting way, that it is rich in meaning, and that it contributes to something about a larger poetic narrative. Consider William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is Just To Say”, which follows much of the structure and line-break pattern that Kaur does, but is wildly different in its quality:

 

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

 

There is a chaotic energy in this poem, a powerful subtext that needs to be unpacked, something playful and intriguing between the tension of its conversational tone and the almost murderous delight of stealing someone’s plums. This interest and interaction with form is utterly lost in Kaur’s work. Her poems are expected, obvious, and vacuous, painting an illusion of depth where there is none.

And perhaps you didn’t like William Carlos Williams’ poem about the plums. Maybe you’re someone who prefers Rupi Kaur’s poetry, and maybe you think it’s pretentious of me to decide that it’s actually quite bad. Perhaps you’re thinking that this whole poetry thing is extremely subjective– who gets to decide what poetry is good and bad, anyway?

If all literature was subjective, then, there would be no point to literary criticism and an entire discipline dedicated to the study of good literature. Poetry is not subjective. There is good literature and there is bad literature. Your experience of either can be subjective— as in, you can like bad literature and hate good literature, but your preferences don’t change the fact that it’s bad or good. There are certain measures for what it means for poetry to be good, and rupi kaur’s poetry simply doesn’t cut it. Of course, it’s great that a whole new wave of people are enjoying poetry and it’s been made accessible to them. It’s just really bad poetry, vacuous, full of lackluster language and the illusion of profundity, all set on the background of simple type font and a cute line drawing. That’s all.

(Images from Google Images)

Evil Is Beautiful in “The Secret History”

Image result for the secret history

In the holiday break, where the days drift like dreams one after another, losing track of time, I find myself reading more than ever. I had the great pleasure of finally finishing Donna Tartt’s brilliant 1992 novel The Secret History, the same author who recently wrote The Goldfinch which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. The Secret History took me an excruciatingly long time to finish– it’s a sprawling nearly 600-page novel, dense with detail and suspense. I started it last December, read it for a couple months between classes in the dining hall or before bed until the library due date approached, and I still wasn’t finished (I wonder how many completions of books have been squandered by library due dates). More than half a year later, I wandered into a bookstore and, remembering how much I loved the book, how absolutely beautiful it was, I bought it and finished it.

I marvelled at the author’s capability to create such a beautiful novel– though it’s strange that I call it beautiful, as the plotline centers around the murder(s) committed by a group of classics students at a small, elite college in Vermont. Most of the group of protagonists are illustriously rich (except for the narrator), lack guiding parental figures, and are drawn to the abstract and the beautiful. They are herded by their professor Julian, who doles out ideas about aesthetics and Greek and philosophy in their class, his students like a tiny cult and him like a benevolent dictator. He presents the idea of a bacchae to his students, essentially a huge party where people get drunk and do various other activities to achieve some sort of transcendent, spiritual experience. His students actually– not just theoretically– carry this out, and, in the process, end up unknowingly murdering a farmer. One thing leads to another, and before they know it, they are on a bewitching, mesmerizing path into evil.

The fatal flaws of these characters, I think, is that they fail to draw the line between the beautiful and the good. Often, the conflation of morality and beauty can lead to disastrous consequences. Things that are irreverent, crude, hurtful, don’t seem so bad because they appeal to our senses or pleasures. The murders these characters commit are done out of a love for beauty– they yearned for the picturesque, longed to be part of the tragedies and dramas they read about in their Greek class.

Julian, the professor in the book, often said “Beauty is terror.” Donna Tartt, the author, was asked in an interview whether she believed beauty really is terror, to which she responded: “Beauty is harsh– I mean, there’s almost no respect in which it isn’t harsh. If you’re talking about physical beauty, if you’re talking about the beauty of a flower, or a beautiful person, it’s horrible because it’s given completely capriciously, one has no control over it, you have it or you don’t, really. The same with the flower– the flower can’t help if it’s a rose or a weed, it’s just born what it is. So there’s cruelty in the way that it’s even doled out. And also, it’s ephemeral, that’s the horrible thing about it. Even to the living things that are lucky enough to be given beauty, it lasts for a very short time.”

This, I think, is the fatal flaw that the characters in The Secret History fail to understand. To them, it is beauty that is the eternal thing, not morality– or perhaps, they mistake beauty as being equivalent to goodness, and fail to recognize that it is so fundamentally unjust, unfeeling, and ephemeral. It’s like what Oscar Wilde once said: “A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers.”

And perhaps we must have this perspective about beauty and art and goodness. Perhaps this way, we can properly separate a flower from its feeling, fact from fiction, or else we risk the mistake that the characters in The Secret History made, leading them down the inexorable path of evil, steeped so far that they didn’t even know it was wrong. Evil is still evil if it is in a picture frame, if it is on a beautiful face, if it is in Greek tragedy. Evil can be beautiful, but it can never be good.