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David Roediger White Looks: Hairy Apes, True Stories and Limbaugh's Laughs The chauvinism and churlishness which begin this otherwise modest and even-tempered essay both derive from my having grown up along that part of the Mississippi River which divides Missouri from Illinois. It is easy to be chauvinistic about that stretch of the river, the lone portion of the Mississippi to divide slavery from freedom. Along the river and its banks, from Hannibal to East St. Louis and St. Louis to Cairo and the Missouri Bootheel, great artists and great art have long been made. To an unrivaled extent, that art has challenged the lie of white supremacy both implicitly through its celebration of Black beauty and creativity and explicitly in its probing of the relationship between race and freedom. Geniuses such as Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Scott Joplin, Katherine Dunham, Redd Foxx, Tina Turner, Quincy Troupe, Josephine Baker, Maya Angelou, Ntozake Shange and Mark Twain have drawn on experiences along the river to chart, move, explode and ignore the color line. Along the river in the Missouri Bootheel a half century ago, adventures with Black and white sharecroppers afforded C. L. R. James seminal insights not only into American life and religion but also, as he remembered, into Hegel's Phenomenology (see Grimshaw and Hart 10; and Roediger, Visit). Even T S. Eliot, the writer ultimately most eager to lose the region's accents, carried much of the racelore and popular culture of the river with him (see North). As a setting for works of genius, the river separating Missouri from Illinois is equally impressive. Huck Finn learns the differences between slavery and freedom drifting down the river and discovers that it is not worth it to be white. Twain sets Pudd'nhead Wilson, with its fierce ridiculing of biological racism, in a town between St. Louis and Cairo. Sterling Brown's "Tornado Blues," with its wonderful meditations on race and tragedy, joins others of the finest of Brown's verse in being set in St. Louis (see Brown 70-72). Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, on one level a remarkable exploration of whiteness as a performance, unfolds on a steamboat bound from St. Louis south (see Karcher 256-57). The churlishness follows from the chauvinism. These days I seldom make it through a month without hearing or reading—often the source is someone on the left—that "whatever his politics" Rush Limbaugh is a "genius." His "genius" sometimes is said to lie in comedy , sometimes in understanding media, sometimes in knowing how to speak to the American people and often in all three. I (who can always manage to smile cordially while such nonsense is trumpeted about William F. Buckley's "seriousness" and "intellect") rage when the adu- 38the minnesota review lation is heaped upon Limbaugh. The reason, I had long known, lies largely in Limbaugh's hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and in his roots in the local elite of that southern Missouri river city. He is my age and, as I grew up in cities north and south of the Cape, his type was all too familiar to me. It was simply this longstanding distaste for his class and his kind whichmade me bristle when Limbaugh was praised— until I began watching his television show. I then realized how thoroughly his "genius" rests on an utterly unreflective and banal performance of whiteness. This essay pairs the analysis of one piece of cultural work on race partly done by Twain with one done by Limbaugh. The juxtaposition underlinesnotonly the difference between genius and banalitybut also the hard reality that banality can acheive much more social power than genius where white consciousness is concerned. More broadly, the essay uses the material from Twain and Limbaugh, as well as from Eugene O'Neill, to formulate a concept of racial formation which takes what I will call the "white look," as well as the imperialist gaze, into account. The concluding pages ofthe piece examine questions ofmethod which emerge from the pairing of Twain's "white look" with Limbaugh's and O'Neill's, suggesting how we might examine historically why certain white looks work, and others do...


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pp. 37-47
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