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Brown Is the Color of Philosophy
An Interview with Richard Rodriguez
If the problem of the twentieth century lay along the color line, as identified by W. E. B. Du Bois, the twenty-first century, essayist Richard Rodriguez writes, is one of contradictory brown lines. Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002a), Rodriguez's third autobiographical rendition of how Americans are confused by, yet live alongside, infinite meanings of brownness is a meditation of Rodriguez's muddled (brown) self. It is an ambitious attempt to labor through the idea of brown as a cultural and racial opening that demands more than a reductive interpretation of brown as exclusively pertinent to Latinas and Latinos.
In these pages, “Brown bleeds through the straight line” (xi), thereby pointing to an ending of dominant expectations along the lines of racial purity, of national borders, and of heterosexist, masculine-centered barriers. But “brown” also denotes impurity. “Brown” is a historical consequence of what Rodriguez calls “careless desire” (xi), of a black and white representational crisis that has not provided the space to explore the significance of brownness in everyday life. Rodriguez demonstrates how brown, as an elastic symbol, resides in the U.S. imaginary. As such, he outlines a notable template for those concerned with brown absence.
Rodriguez's undertaking requires revisiting the historical and literary moments that delineate metaphorical brownness. References to key figures in the U.S. and British canons abound. The return of the scholarship [End Page 269] boy, as he introduced himself in his first collection of essays, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982), confirms the universality of these writers as well as the training and amassed knowledge of this provocative public intellectual.
And yet the scholarship boy's extensive education, reference points, and experiences, which should ostensibly converse with white, dominant systems of knowledge, stand in opposition to them. Some editors have described him as the type of writer who parades his schooling, Rodriguez (2002a, 34) freely admits, acknowledging that he is not an author in the 92d Street Y sense of the word (40). He thus takes us on the circuitous route first proposed in 1982: a series of interventions that move beyond stereotypical expectations of his work, expectations inspired by a brown skin disadvantage that paradoxically provides socioeconomic benefit (26).
Although Rodriguez (2002a, 26) opposes such policies as affirmative action, he credits the 1960s black Civil Rights movement for the publication of his books. At the same time, however, he demands cultural and literary creativity from those who read the subject matter through which his “Hispanic chapters” (xii) and, as a consequence, his Hispanic books, fall. This circuitous deliberation is also present in Hunger of Memory. There, Rodriguez (1982, 7) reflects on the sociocultural location of his inaugural account: “Let the bookstore clerk puzzle over where it should be placed. (Rodriguez? Rodriguez?) Probably he will shelve it alongside specimens of that exotic new genre, ‘ethnic literature.' Mistaken, the gullible reader will—in sympathy or in anger—take it that I intend to model my life as the typical Hispanic-American life.” At a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Brown is shelved under “Race & Ethnic/Urban Studies.” Restrictive subject headings prove Rodriguez's findings: brown, as a white interpretation, becomes a hindrance that does not enter the larger archived meanings of white published outlooks on Americanness.
As Rodriguez highlights, brown operates as a discursive American outsider. The implications of this lived reality, in various forms, were critically and incisively introduced in Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. In the prequel to Brown, Rodriguez proposes that an inside look at America necessitates a reflective distance from North American ideology and the geopolitical terrain of the United States. “In order to show you America,” he cautions, “I would have to take you out” (1982, 54). As an outside observer with an audience through which to disseminate his interpretations on America vis-à-vis Harper's, the...