Christina Scheuer

Christina Scheuer: On "Outlines"

Audre Lorde’s “Outlines” explores the liminal spaces of human relationships – the borders at which people meet each other, the sites of race relations, the intimate association of rage and regeneration, and the continual conflation of the personal and the political.   In speaking about an interracial lesbian relationship, Lorde investigates the commonalities between the two women of her poem, but she refuses to synthesize the racial differences between them.   Rather, Lorde will speak about the ways in which the women’s commonalities, their love and respect for one another, allow them to confront the history of race relations on an intimate and immediate level; as Lorde writes in the poem, “what we share  illuminates what we do not.”

The first stanza is an amazing moment of intimate opposition (or oppositional intimacy) in which color and gender are both immediately fore-grounded and irreducibly woven together.  By speaking directly of “a Black woman and a white woman” whose relationship will be explored through the poem, the fifth line emphasizes the sexual and racial tropes of the first stanza, reinforcing the purposiveness of Lorde’s references to “hue” and “color,” as well as to the specifically vaginal images of the “slit of anger” and the “channel/blood comes through.”  As a lesbian viewing the female body, the speaker’s vaginal references represent both an extremely sensual moment – based on a specific desire for the other’s body – as well as a moment of self-understanding and an awareness of the terrain of her own body.   Therefore, when the speaker asks,

 

What hue lies in the slit of anger

ample and pure as night

what color the channel

blood comes through?

 

the answer is neither black nor white, but rather both. Both women have their own histories, their own incitements to anger, and their own relationship to their female bodies, and the ambiguity of the first stanza embraces the commonality of these experiences.   The fifth line, in contrast, sharply foregrounds the difference between the two women, making it clear that the opposition between “Black” and “white” will never be erased or forgotten.  Significantly, the Black woman’s race is marked by a capital while the white woman’s is not, and this difference in capitalization makes it clear that the opposition between black and white never breaks free from the historical context of racism.  Within the framework of radically unbalanced race relations, the “Black woman’s” race becomes a part of her identity in a way in which the “white woman’s” race does not; whiteness carries with it the privilege of neutrality.

As the site of both sexual and racial transgression, the relationship between the two women always represents a struggle against the “burden” of a “history” that would prefer to ignore or invalidate their existence.   Because of the weight of history and the tenacity of racist and heterosexist judgments, the women must find their way through a terrain that is continually hostile and resistant; they are “Black woman white woman/ altering course to fit our own journey,” “together   embattled by choice/ carving an agenda with tempered lightning.”   Moving in such a terrain, every movement is a struggle and a risk, the continual crossing of a “bridge” that is “mined” by “fury/ tuned like a Geiger counter,” and yet the speaker chooses to turn towards that struggle because she realizes that the women “cannot alter history/ by ignoring it.”  Even though her decision to enter into a relationship with a white woman “means a gradual sacrifice/ of all that is simple,” the speaker resolves that she will no longer allow the “burden of history” to steer the course of her life:

 

In this treacherous sea

even the act of turning

is almost fatally difficult

coming around full face

into a driving storm

putting an end to running

before the storm.

 

Though the speaker realizes the “open fact of [their] loving” cannot in itself change history, her determination to struggle against the weight of that history challenges its strength.

Even as the poem affirms the relationship between the two women, it also continually confronts the rage and violence that constantly threatens this relationship from both within and without.    In section IV of the poem, the women rise “after a battle that leaves our night in tatters/ and we two glad to be alive   and tender;” there seems to be a violence that is inherent in the relationship, and a rage that is intimately bound up in their love for one another.   This violence is both compared to and contrasted with the violence from that comes from without – a violence that is unmitigated by tenderness:

 

We rise to dogshit   dumped on our front porch

the brass windchimes from Sundance stolen

despair offerings of the 8 A.M. News

reminding us we are still at war

and not with each other

 

The violence from without is perpetrated by people who do not make the effort to confront and struggle with difference or otherness, and as such it remains destructive. The woman’s violence towards each other, on the other hand, grows out of their very commitment to try to understand each other’s differences, and as such it is a productive violence that ends in tenderness and regeneration.   Significantly, Lorde does not constitute rage itself as “male” or “other;” rather, rage and tenderness are conflated, written as part of the same struggle against the “burden of history.”

 

Copyright © 2004 by Christina Scheuer

Christina Scheuer: On "Looking for Judas"

In “Looking for Judas,” Adrian C. Louis conflates Native American and Christian myth, binding them together through the central imagery of the poem. Louis’s poem begins when the speaker of the poem kills a deer and hangs it in the barn, and as he reflects on the body, the image of the “five-point mule” recalls Christ’s crucifixion: “Gutted, skinned, and shimmering in eternal/ nakedness, the glint in its eyes could/ be stolen from the dry hills of Jerusalem.” After he imagines the deer as a Christ-figure, however, the speaker tries to return to a time before “the white man/ brought us Jesus” in order to tell the story of the way in which Native Americans once communed with the spirit of the “Deer People.” These two narratives are brought together dramatically in the penultimate line, in which the speaker says that the deer’s “holy blood became ours.” In both myths, the “holy blood” symbolizes intimate connection and communion, a union between physical and spiritual realities. The narratives that Louis weaves together are both stories of a death that leads, presumably, to communion, rebirth, and regeneration, and yet the history of the “white man’s” genocide of Native people makes such an easy communion unthinkable.

As the speaker continues to regard the deer that he has just killed, he attempts to place himself and the deer within the context of the story of the Native people’s connection to the Deer People. Though the speaker includes himself in the “we” of the story, his repetition of the phrase “They say” makes it clear that he has already distanced himself from his narrative, relying on hearsay or on another’s discursive authority:

 

They say before the white man

brought us Jesus, we had honor.

They say when we killed the Deer People,

we told them their spirits

would live in our flesh.

 

The “They” of the poem remains necessarily ambiguous and nebulous; the speaker cannot identity the “They” as a familiar person or as a particular group of storytellers with whom he can personally relate. Rather, he views one of the central stories of his own culture as if he were an outsider looking in on the narrative. The co-existence of the two cultural myths in the poem reveal that the speaker cannot remember or speak of a time “before the white man,” so that the “They” of the poem not only refers to his Native ancestors, but also to the white people who have appropriated, fixed, and disseminated the stories of his people. Through movies, television shows and novels, American consumers have become familiar with the “white man’s” version of stories about Native people’s relationship to the land and to animals, and it is impossible for Louis to tell this story without echoing the white stereotype of the “noble savage” whose intimate connection with nature make him seem both more and less than human. Therefore, Louis is necessarily alienated from his own story, unable to find “honor” in a narrative that has been appropriated by the very people who systematically destroyed his culture.

After constructing his narrative, however, Louis adroitly dismantles the story through the mockery of his last line: “Or something like that.” With its swift disruption of the reader’s expectations, Louis’s last line is a brilliant use of irony that transforms everything that precedes it. The speaker’s final statement reclaims the narrative from the nebulous “They” that had seemingly controlled it, thereby restoring the speaker’s discursive authority. By seizing control of the story, Louis skillfully undermines the white stereotype of the noble savage; the self-mockery and irony of the last line makes it clear that he is deeply aware of the way in which his story has been appropriated by white culture. Even though this last line reclaims the speaker’s authority, the implications of the speaker’s mockery are fairly devastating, quickly severing any hope that the speaker might find some mythic connection with the deer and, therefore, with his own culture.

If the deer is a symbol of Christ, then the title of the poem, “Looking for Judas,” leads us to ask who, exactly, is the great betrayer. “Judas” cannot simply be identified as the speaker of the poem because Judas himself did not physically kill Christ; the betrayal, then, lies not in the central action of the poem, but rather lurks behind it. If we read the text of the poem through the title – that is, read it “Looking for Judas,” – then the words “the white man/ brought us Jesus” take on an entirely new meaning, suggesting that the white man “brought [them] Jesus” in the same way in which Judas brought Jesus to the Romans, using the Christian religion as a means to satiate their avarice and lust for power. Read in this way, the focus of the Christian myth as it is played out in America is not redemption, but rather a betrayal rising out of an unpardonable greed, and the guilt of Judas is no longer contained in one man, but rather disseminated among the population.

Deeply aware of the way in which his story has been appropriated, Louis uses irony to dramatize the speaker’s alienation from himself, from his history, and from the deer, whose spirit never “live[s] in [his] flesh.” However, because the Native and the Christian narrative are so inexorably linked within the poem, the failure of communion between the speaker and the deer reverberates out through the Christian myth. Through the title of the poem and his use of Christian imagery, Louis shows that the “white man’s” history of greed and deceit has likewise alienated them from their own central narrative of salvation, revealing them as the betrayers of Christ rather that his messengers—casting them as strangers in the house of their own myth.

Christina Scheuer: On "White Things"

Anne Spencer’s “White Things” swiftly denaturalizes the relationship between and the hierarchy among “black” and “white” by pathologizing whiteness, marking it as a dangerous aberration rather than a sign of superiority. In doing so, Spencer relies on the language of race relations in the United States in order to radically undermine it, for if a drop of black blood makes someone black, then “Black men are most men,” and “pure” whiteness is both extraordinarily fragile and “rare.” Spencer revisions a racist legal and social history by recasting “Black” as a quality of coalition and connection – something that unites “most men” and excludes those who identify as white. In these first lines, Spencer also sunders the associative link between the qualities of “rareness” and “preciousness,” for it soon becomes clear that “the white” destroy precious things rather than possessing any valuable qualities themselves. Also, by writing that “They stole from out a silvered world – somewhere,” Spencer insists that the “white things” have no real home and that, as Maureen Honey suggests, they have found a place only through colonization and the violent appropriation of other people’s homelands (MAPS).

Despite Spencer’s withering critique of white power, Keith Clark insists that Spencer didn’t write “protest” poetry – as if the term “protest poem” can only refer to poetry that exhibits a very specific rhetoric and form. Clark writes, “the persona of ‘White Things’ addresses race metaphorically,” and yet the poem’s power relies very explicitly on the material reality of race relations (MAPS). For example, the first lines of the second stanza provide a sickening image of the “creation” of whiteness that relies on references to the history of lynching; here, whiteness works not only as a metaphor, but also as a reference to the very real quality of the burned flesh of black men:

 

They pyrred a race of black, black men,

And burned them to ashes white, then

Laughing, a young one claimed a skull

For the skull of a black is white, not dull

 

In this stanza, whiteness not only acts as an agent of murder and destruction, but it is also created out of that destruction, a move that rewrites the white, Christian origin myth as a story of death and violence rather than the creation of life.

As Susan Gubar notes, the “White Things” are never named as people, though the actions of attempting to dominate and destroy the earth and the lynching scene are very clearly the actions of “white men” (MAPS). By identifying “white people” metonymically through their imperialistic, racist, and extraordinarily violent actions, Spencer provides a scathing criticism of “white rights” or Manifest Destiny. When the line “but the white are free!” is read through the lens of the rest of the poem, it becomes clear that the “white” are “free” to destroy all things of color and beauty. By speaking about the “freedom” of “the whites,” Spencer calls attention to the historical links that bind the Enlightenment rhetoric of freedom and human rights to the violent histories of imperialism, so that white freedom is almost always predicated on the violation and colonization of “black” or non-white bodies.

Spencer’s poem can be read as a global – rather than just a national – critique of racism, Like Langston Hughes “White Shadows,” which addresses his “Dark brothers” around the world in the hope of finding a place “Where the white shadows/ Will not fall,” Spencer’s poem simultaneously critiques white imperialism and calls attention to the global connections between “black men.” Spencer and Hughes’ references to black internationalism reveal their concerns for global politics and their awareness of linked oppressions. Spencer not only critiques white domination and the colonization of people, but also their destruction of the natural world, which they have “blanched with their wand of power.” Spencer reveals that this “wand,” as phallically powerful as it appears, is actually a curse because, like Midas’s touch, it destroys everything that it tries to appropriate.

J. Lee Greene (MAPS) argues that the lines in the last stanza “suggest the likeness of men (‘For the skull of a black man is white, not dull’) in that all men are men and are basically alike in the eyes of God,” yet Spencer seems to be suggesting otherwise. In the process of reversing racial discourses that cast non-white people as “naturally” inferior or inhuman, Spencer suggests that the “White Things” have dehumanized themselves through their destructive actions and, in doing so, have made a mockery of both God and humanity. Gubar writes, “The only hope the poem holds out persists in the quotation marks of the last line which contain the possibility that the God who made (black) men (not white ghouls) is a deity of color who will refuse to hear or heed the deadly malediction.” However, the poem’s ending suggests that the “young ghoul” is swearing to the master of hell, not of heaven, which raises the dual possibilities that hell is the source of the “white things” and that the work of a heavenly or benevolent God is already being systematically destroyed. The suggestion that white domination has effectively driven God out of the world is echoed in Spencer's poem “(God never planted a garden),” in which the “keepers” that God placed in the “garden” destroy the garden and drive God out of it. Spencer’s poems provide a series of chilling revisions of the Christian creation myth: instead of the “white men” being created in the image of God, they are rising out of the ashes of black bodies, and instead of a man and a woman being evicted from the Garden of Eden, God is being systematically evacuated from the garden of the world.

 

Copyright © 2006 by Christina Scheuer

Christina Scheuer: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

Gwendolyn Brooks identifies “Gay Chaps at the Bar” as a “sonnet series in off-rhymes, because I felt it was an off-rhyme situation” (Brooks 9). By writing from the perspective of black soldiers who are experiencing the intersecting violences of war and racism, Brooks addresses their complex relationship to their “home” in a country that was still segregated and still motivated by racism, hate, and fear. Brooks' sonnet sequence addresses the sites in which racially defined relationships are both established and challenged, and she also speaks about some of the emotional and practical difficulties of the soldier's relationship to the United States.

Susan Schweik aptly identifies “looking” as both a significant sonnet in the sequence and a central trope of the sequence as a whole. In this sonnet, looking is not only feminized, but motherly, and Schweik uses Mary Ann Doane’s theorization of wartime “weepies” in order to analyze the “maternal look” of the poem (MAPS). Schweik is critical of the way in which this feminized gaze reinforces a conservative and conventional set of gender relationships, insisting that “Brooks's "looking" develops, in part, a similar mythology of feminine relation to systems of representation mastered by men” (MAPS). However, in other sonnets in the sequence, the gender of the “look” is complicated, as looking becomes the central mode of both identification and misidentification, the process through which the soldiers are racialized and the process through which that racialization is complicated, reversed, or undermined. The act of “looking” becomes even more fraught if we read “looking” in conjunction with two other sonnets in the sequence that are structured around sight or the act of looking: “still do I keep my look, my identity . . .” and “the white troops had their orders but the negroes looked like men.” In both these poems, visual performativity and the act of looking are foregrounded as potentially positive or re-humanizing agents, yet these potential affirmative readings are undercut by the each sonnet’s turn.

By stating that “Gay Chaps at the Bar” relies on letters that she received from soldiers overseas, Gwendolyn Brooks seems to impart her poem with the authority of those voices, relying on the testimonies of men who were “over-there.” However, the pretext of the authoritative, authentic male voice is almost immediately revealed as a guise, since the formality of Brooks’ sonnet sequence dispels any illusion that she is directly transmitting “letters from the front.” According to Ann Fowell Stanford,

By writing in male voices, by revising “the old stories,” Brooks resituates herself, moving from the peripheral “woman’s” place of observing war, to the center of the action. In so doing she both decanters the traditional male voice and reinscribes war with her multi-leveled meaning, resisting and refuting the traditional notion of women’s exteriority to war. The poet’s female and marginalized voice then, by cross-dressing in soldier’s garb, gains a more central position from which to speak (198).

Stanford’s reading of “Gay Chaps” as a kind of “cross-dressing” or drag opens up the gendered implications of the poem, allowing traditional male and female spheres to intersect with and affect one another.

In “the white troops had their orders,” the white troops’ racializing and “hooded gaze” becomes “perplexed” when it meets the “Negroes” face to face. These first lines complicate the act of looking; instead of establishing a racial divide based on the identification of skin color, “looking” actually confuses such an easy division. The poem also suggests that the cause of the white troops’ confusion is the fact that both white and black soldiers were fighting on the same side and that, therefore, distinguishing between black and white became much less important than distinguishing “friendly” soldiers from enemies:]

Besides, it taxed Time and temper to remember those Congenital iniquities that cause Disfavor of the darkness.

The first octet works to suggest that war might have a democratizing influence that would confound racism. The “white soldiers” could no longer keep the “hooded gaze,” a phrase that suggests the Klansmen’s hoods, which allowed Klansmen to disguise themselves so that they had the privilege of looking at and murdering black men without that gaze being reciprocated or that power threatened. In this poem, however, both black and white men look and are looked at, so that the gazes are necessarily reciprocal.

That hopeful moment is undermined by the sonnet’s turn, in which it becomes clear that one of the most significant challenges in distinguishing “dark men” and “Other” came in labeling the soldiers’ remains. Only after their bodies had been mangled beyond recognition were the white and black men truly indistinguishable, so that the establishment of equality relies on destruction and mutilation. The last lines confound sight, since the individual bodies have been reduced to “contents” that “had been scrambled/ Or even switched.” The racializing look has been perplexed, but not necessarily because “the Negroes looked like men,” but because all of the dead men had been equally reduced to corpses or “contents.” Therefore, the last two lines are doubly ironic. On the one hand, they announce that intimate racial mixing has occurred in the “scambl[ing]” of the body parts, yet “Neither the earth nor heaven ever trembled” at this supposed affront to the natural order. On the other hand, however, the lines refer to the fact that these men can die and be torn apart, yet the earth remains the same: “And there was nothing startling in the weather.” These last lines pose a direct challenge to people who were appalled by anything that challenged racial purity, but they also undermine the epic tradition in which heroes died and the earth “trembled.”

“the white troops had their orders” references both the persistent segregation that lasted throughout the war and the spaces in which that segregation necessarily broke down. Racism continues to exist on the battlefield, but the battlefield is also a place where the unreasonable and false bases of racism are starkly, and often grotesquely, revealed. An entry in The Crisis’s “Along the N.A.A.C.P. Battlefield” (March 1942) presents the inverse of Brooks’ sonnet by informing readers that the president of the American Red Cross had announced that instead of refusing . . . to accept blood from Negro donors, the Red Cross would accept it, but keep it separate from “white” blood plasma. The Red Cross acknowledges that there is no scientific difference between “Negro” blood, and “white” blood, but repeats its belief that in the interest of democracy, the prejudices of men who may need blood transfusions should respected (100). Here, a medical institution denies what would be best for its patients in favor of a false “democracy” founded on prejudice rather than knowledge. Such a policy was not only grossly insulting to the African Americans who donated blood and inimical to the health of the soldiers and the success of the Allies but, as Brook’s sonnet suggests, such a policy is potentially impossible to maintain.

Like “the white troops had their orders,” Brooks’ “Still do I keep my look, my identity . . .” begins with an affirmation of the solders’ humanity, though the ellipses that follow “identity” already suggest that the confidence of the title’s assertion will be challenged. The first lines echo the tradition of the love sonnet in their sonorous rhythms. Unlike the traditional love sonnet, however, the poem makes no pretence of praising only one person, but rather lovingly gives “Each body” its due: “Each body has its art, its precious prescribed/ Pose.” Each person receives his identity from being seen; his identity is a performance, a “Pose” that is re-enacted in every situation. As in “looking,” the gaze is here both romanticized and maternal, protective and eroticizing. As such, it is a feminized gaze, but not necessarily a woman’s, since the poem suggests a homosocial arenas in which men would know each other’s “Poses” more intimately than anyone else would.

Though the gaze is loving, careful to document each solder’s individual identity, the sonnet’s sestet once again undermines the significance of this romanticized gaze. The worth of the body is partially threatened in the third and forth line, when the fact that “grief has stabbed,/ Or hatred hacked” prefigures the destruction (or even the dismemberment) of the body and, therefore, of “its pose.” However, the next lines come to reaffirm each individual’s right to his own body: “No other stock/ That is irrevocable, perpetual/ And its to keep. In castle or in shack.” The last phrase of the octet, however, suggests the evacuation of the body’s meaning, since the poet insists that the body keeps pose “Though good, nothing, or ill.” The interposing of “nothing” in that line suggest that each body’s performance is empty, a mere repetition of meaningless gestures. Then, in the last lines, the affirmation of the body’s look is made ironic, even grotesque, by its violent death. After “Having twisted, gagged, and then sweet-ceased to bother,” the body can return to “the old personal art.” But the word “personal” has been emptied out of value, divested of individuality and potential meaning – it is no more and no less than a “look.” The identity that was once so lovingly transcribed has become a grotesque effigy of itself, and the body that could once both see and be seen – that could fix the other through his “look” – has now become an object that can only be gazed upon.

Works Cited

“Along the N.A.A.C.P. Battlefield.” The Crisis March 1942, 100. Brooks, Gwendolyn and George Stavros. “An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks.” Contemporary Literature 11.1 (Winter 1970), 1-20. Stanford, Anne Folwell. “Dialectics of Desire: War and the Restive Voice in Gwendolyn Brooks’s ‘Negro Hero’ and ‘Gay Chaps at the Bar.’” African American Review 26.2 (Summer 1992). 197-211.

Copyright © 2006 by Christina Scheuer