Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Paper: Black and White

Publishing these papers online because I lost my flash drive and wish to do my part to help protect academic integrity.

This one I wrote for a class on critical theory, as a student of Fordham U.

Black and White
            James McBrides’ The Color of Water explores the white-black dichotomy that is so central to Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. This dichotomy can also be seen as a two-way mirror that separates and shapes the lived experiences of the black man and the white man. The black man is in a veritable dark room whereby he can not see himself, only the white man. Conversely, the white man is in the light room but does not see the black man, only his own reflection. Both are aware of the other’s existence on the other side of the mirror and have some means of communication (say, telephone) – a micro society. However, the black man, as Fanon argues, can only identify himself via the Other, the white man. At the same time, the white man sees only himself since, in society, he has no intimate knowledge of the black man and, therefore, creates this conception of “black man” from his own mind. That is, as exemplified in The Color of Water, Fanon’s description of the lived experience of the black man is a two-way mirror.
            First let us look as the black man in the dark room. The room is dark much like the history of the black man. His history is dark in two senses of the word: 1) it is filled with tragedy, such as slavery and murder, and 2) it is obscure because little is known about Africa or its inhabitants prior to its European colonization. This darkness makes the black man susceptible to the white man, who, knowing this, uses it for manipulation; he tells the black man, essentially, that he is inferior. However, the issue is further complicated by the fact that this view is wrong; African culture has been shown to be much more advanced than what historically it has been depicted as; the black man is “not a potentiality of something” but is fully what he is (Fanon 114).
Then there is the fact that the black man can not see himself in the two-way mirror. Instead, he sees the white man – what he is not. It is this opposition that shapes his perceived identity; without the white man’s presence, there would be no such false identity. Fanon writes, “As long as the black man remains on his home territory . . . he will not have to experience his being for others” (89). The black man in the dark room regards the visible presence of the white man and must exist while being exposed to the persistent presence of the white gaze; he feels the white man all around him (Fanon 94). He must, therefore, not only be black but black in relation to white, giving him a confusing two systems of reference (Fanon 90). Because his own history is dark, the black man has no choice but to assume the identity that comes with the latter system of reference. This identity is conveyed to the black man via his interactions with the white man, specifically, by the white man’s “gestures and attitude” (Fanon 89) Further, this forced identity and subordination causes the black man to feel angry whereby the only solutions are that he either accepts his subordinate social position or he completely denies the its vraisemblance. As Fanon notes, the white man will reject the black man as an equal, so the black man is lead into either pride of some newly discovered blackness or shame and self contempt.
            James McBride’s descriptions of his own experiences as a black man in The Color of Water exemplifies this being in the third person that Fanon describes (90). Much of McBride’s early childhood, following the death of his father, was spent going to the cinema and watching blaxploitation films, such as Superfly and Shaft; smoking reefer; snatching purses; and shoplifting (McBride 6). This acceptance of “blackness” was an act of confirmation to the identity that the Other gave him; the world demanded of him to act like a black man (Fanon 94). Further, McBride falls in love with the black power movement and the Black Panthers (McBride 25). Also, his older sister, Helen, drops out of school, stating: “The white man’s education is not for me” (McBride 73). These acts are confirmations of the stage of acceptance and assertion of blackness by the black man in response to and rejection of the white man’s oppression.
            Now we turn to the white man in the light room on the other side of the two-way mirror. He is in the light room because his history is: 1) filled with many achievements, such as the conquering of foreign lands and the creation of many invaluable technologies, and 2) is well known and documented. Therefore, the white man has a relationship with the world that “is one of appropriation” (Fanon 107).
In the light room, the white man is only able to see his own reflection. He is aware that the black man is on the other side but can not see him directly. Therefore, he must create the black man from his own mind. What basis does the white man have to create such a conception? For this task, he looks toward history, his only useful resource. As we all know, the black man was brought into the white world from Africa in chains. He was made a slave and treated as an animal, all based on the belief that blacks were not fully human and were inherently inferior mentally. That is not all. The black man is something to be feared; he has a violent and aggressive nature. It is this conception that the white man adopts, and the black man, unable to change the obvious epidermal difference, can not escape this color prejudice; the black man is a slave to his appearance (Fanon 95). Anthony Appiah emphasis this point in Critical Terms for Literary Study, naming appearance as the defining characteristic of the Other (274). He calls this belief in fundamental inheritable traits in “races” racialist (Appiah 176). Racialists believe that a Negro’s black skin, for instance, “goes along with other important inherited characteristics” (Appiah 276). The term Karim Murji in New Keywords uses  to call the act is racial essentialism which arises from racialization, “various processes by which real or imagined characteristics are used to identify a group as ‘racial’ collectivity, and cultural, political, or ideological situations where race thinking is invoked” (291).
Nothing the black man does or is can find him favor in the eyes of the white man: refined manners, literary knowledge or understanding of esoteric subjects (Fanon 97). Moreover, there is no rationality, such as the genealogical identicalness between the two races, that can save the black man. Rationalizing the world will ultimately lead to its rejecting of the black man (Fanon 102). Thus, the black man is objectified indefinitely.
What is more, this conception forces the black man to be responsible not only himself but for his entire race and ancestors (Fanon 92); he is the black slave as well as the African native. This causes a persistent self awareness and anxiety.
In The Color of Water, Ruth McBride, James’ mother, denies her whiteness to her children when asked, stating that she is simply “light-skinned.” She denies it because she does not want her children to question their own identities and focus on this black-white dichotomy which has become a societal obsession, which, in turn, is a defining and definitive attribute of this type of separated society. However, it proves to be impossible not to discriminate; James knew that his mother was different from the other kids’ mothers, that she was not black (McBride 23). He feared that the Black Panthers would kill his mother, a fear, that blacks were hostile toward whites, instilled in him from the white man (McBride 26-7). In fact, he recounts: “Most white folks I knew seemed to have a great fear of blacks. Even as a young child, I was aware of that.” (McBride 31). In turn, whites are “implicitly evil towards blacks” (McBride 29).
A counterargument can be raised against my claim that the two-way mirror analogy which summarizes Fanon’s argument is exemplified in McBride’s The Color of Water. Namely, it is this: Does not the exposure to the black man, through daily interactions with him, serve to change the perception of him, and thus serve to erode the mirror over time? This is an issue that Fanon does not address. However, what we know is that, in general, we see that real life exposure to people of different racial groups helps to break stereotypes. Does this fact, then, lead to the erosion of the two-way mirror? Yes. However, in society, true and honest communication between the races, though increasing more common, still remains relatively low. Therefore, the mirror is still in place today – as it was in Fanon’s time.
The black-white dichotomy is a two-way mirror, the black man on one side, the white man on the other. One’s point of view makes all the difference. History shapes our view points and we can either accept it with pride or accept it shamefully. The mirror can erode but only through communication.


Works Cited
Appiah, Anthony. Critical Terms for Literary Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1994. Print.
McBride, James. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. Riverhead Books, New York: 1996. Print.

Murji, Karim. New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary and Society. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Print.

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