Five Easy Pieces: Race in the Symbolic Universe

29 Jul

A T&T working paper: The five pieces have been previously published on New Savanna.

Abstract: How did Western culture get from Shakespeare’s Caliban to Bill Cosby’s Dr. Cliff Huxtable? This essay examines that trajectory by consider six imaginative works: Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Forster’s A Passage to India, Faulkner’s Light in August, Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and The Cosby Show. The focus is on the projective dynamics of racisim where the racial Other is made to express feelings and desires that the dominant culture denies.

The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom—if it did not in fact create it—like slavery. . . . For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination. What rose out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism—a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American.
– Toni Morrison,
Playing in the Dark

There’s a young black boy on my job and those white cats have made him tell them so many lies about what they call his love life that he can’t tell whether he’s coming or going. They want to believe that we screw like dogs or cats–you know, just go out there and get you a piece, just like they might scratch their backs or get a glass of water. . . Another thing, if we were just like dogs, then all the rotten things they have done and are doing to us would be okay!
– Clifford Yancy, in John Langston Gwaltney,

Introduction: A Universe of Symbols

Each culture has a universe of symbols through which its members understand themselves and one another. We use these symbols to elaborate our mental world and to communicate with one another, for symbolism gives graphic and linguistic form to our feelings and desires. The olive branch and white dove of peace, the blood-red planet Mars betokening war, the serpent of wisdom, or of life and healing, are examples of such symbols. American society is culturally diverse. While all Americans may share some symbols–perhaps the American flag, the Thanksgiving turkey–other symbols belong to specific cultures. Each subculture has its own symbolic universe, with its own symbols.

European-American culture includes a vast network of symbols, a network in which African-Americans have played, and continue to play, an important role. The way whites symbolize blacks has more to do with the hearts and minds of whites than it does with black reality. Thus if we are to understand the role that black culture has played in the development of general American culture, we will need to understand the role that white culture has already assigned to blacks. The subject is vast, but we don’t need to survey it all in order to get the lay of the land. A few examples will serve.

I like the position that Kenneth Burke articulated in his essay on “Literature as Equipment for Living” in his Philosophy of Literary Form. Using words and phrases from several definitions of the term “strategy” (in quotes in the following passage), he asserts that:

. . . surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one’s campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”

Through the symbols and strategies of shared stories, members of a culture articulate their desires and feelings to one another thereby making themselves mutually at home in the world. What roles do African-Americans play in the stories European-Americans tell one another? For those stories tell us about the symbolic position blacks occupy in the symbolic universe whites have created for themselves. Those stories tell us about the desires and feelings which whites have about and toward blacks. Those desires and feelings are central to the psychology of racism. Once we understand how this symbol-system works, we can then begin to understand that listening to, dancing to, and even performing African-American music gives European-Americans a way of recovering the feelings and desires which they have hidden from themselves behind the mask of racism.

First we look at Shakespeare’s depiction of Caliban in The Tempest. Caliban’s nature is indeterminate. It’s not even clear that he’s human; if not, he’s certainly not European. Caliban marks the imaginative space Europeans used for understanding Africans. Then we move to late 19th Century America where we find Huck Finn going down the Mississippi with a runaway slave; he’s fleeing his abusive father. How strange that this American boy should choose a black man as his surrogate parent. Jim sure isn’t Shakespeare’s Caliban.

Then we take a look at race and sex in two different texts, Faulkner’s Light in August and Forster’s A Passage to India, both from the early 20th Century. While the stories are very different, different countries, different racial Others, the projective dynamic is the same, and cut from the same mold as Prospero and Caliban. We move to the late 20th Century for a Hollywood film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and a popular television series, The Cosby Show. The film puts cartoon characters, called Toons, on a level with humans, but as entertainers, a role that blacks were allowed to play in American society, and shows the protagonist growing through his involvement with Toons. The Cosby Show depicts a world in which black life is the central reference point for the show.

How did Western culture get from Shakespeare’s Caliban to Bill Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable, M.D.? Stories played an important role in that process, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit exhibits that role.


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