- Act Like You Know: African-American Autobiography and White Identity
These provocative and compelling essays, radical politics in the form of scholarly discourse, constitute a broad critique of American racism. “[W]e make of you the sign of transgression itself,” Sartwell says, often speaking directly to blacks, the “objects” of his study. “We construct our pure moral agency by the exclusion of what we construct you to be: particular, appetitive, passionate, incapable of reason, incoherent” (89). In the writings of American slaves and of W. E. B. DuBois, Malcolm X, and Zora Neale Hurston, and in rap music, Sartwell finds a source of knowledge about whiteness, its history, its masks. He is pursuing nothing less than a deconstruction of the Western idea of objective science and scholarship, finding racist concepts, overt and subliminal, at the core. Nor can he escape the (white) observing eye, the analyst analyzing “them,” and he uses this consciousness to make his own identity and work problematic parts of the story. Sartwell’s changing tones and discourses—literary criticism, philosophy, feminist theory, autobiography—all harmonize toward the theme articulated by DuBois, writing about World War I in “Dusk of Dawn”: “As we saw the dead dimly through rifts of battle smoke and heard faintly the cursing and accusations of blood brothers, we darker men said: This is not Europe gone mad; this is not aberration or insanity; this is Europe; this seeming Terrible is the real soul of white culture—back of all culture—stripped and visible today” (84). Sartwell’s study of African American texts illuminates the ways in which minds under skin of any color will synthesize and repossess all sorts of cultural formulations. This is the human capacity that enriches traditions and defies polarizations found in dominations and purifications of all kinds. African American art and thought is a brilliant example of such preservation, compilation, and recreation. But Sartwell, at times, seems in danger of reinscribing the very dichotomies he seeks to dismantle. I found this contradiction to be the oddest thing about the work. His discussion of sexual desire and interracial sex, for instance, builds on the idea of “white folks as disembodied intellects and black folks as natural bodies” (106). He critiques such intrapsychic schemes, including his own desires, but then seems to universalize, presuming all whites look at blacks with “the mixture of fear and desire” (3) he experienced as a boy in Washington, D.C. I understand the truth of the abstraction, but surely recognition of differences in individual stories belongs to a work that posits autobiography as the subversive antidote to objectification. Still, Sartwell belongs to an increasing number of white writers and scholars willing to risk fragmentation, uncertainty, and even shame to see whiteness [End Page 598] as it is. The racial crisis of our national culture is personal, public, and epistemological, he tells us repeatedly, and racism, with the inescapable pain and anger it generates, is embedded in our work, our intellectual systems, our dreams. The story of a white critic and philosopher exploring himself in the interstices of his subject is both illuminating and brave.