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Diacritics 31.2 (2001) 9-34
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Of Blackface and Paranoid Knowledge
Richard Wright, Jacques Lacan, and the Ambivalence of Black Minstrelsy
Only the subject—the human subject, the subject of the desire that is the essence of man—is not, unlike the animal, entirely caught up in this imaginary capture. He maps himself in it. How? In so far as he isolates the function of the mask and plays with it. Man, in effect, knows how to play with the mask as that beyond which there is the gaze.
—Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis
There is a danger of corrosion of the self in this pretense, and surely a rending of integrity. How, and when does one call upon the real self to dispel the make-believe and claim humanity and dignity? . . . It was just possible that the trick had been too perfect; legerdemain had undone itself in a disappearance act where the self had vanished, but also the incantation to call it back again.
—Nathan Irvin Huggins, Harlem Renaissance
In late November 1998, a teacher in New York City's Public School 75 introduced an acclaimed children's book called Nappy Hair to her third-grade students as extracurricular reading material. The book, written by Carolivia Herron, is a transcript of a piece of oral history passed on in the author's family. It tells the story of a black girl with "the kinkiest, the nappiest, the fuzziest, the most screwed up, squeezed up, knotted up, tangled up, twisted up [. . .] hair you've ever seen in your life" [Herron, unnumbered pages]. According to the author, the book aims to celebrate racial diversity and encourage pride in black children. Some parents of the (mostly black) pupils saw it differently, however. In the days following the introduction of the book, photocopies of parts of the book were circulated among the parents, some of whom were enraged when they saw what they considered demeaning, stereotypical, and "racially insensitive" depictions of black people. A meeting was called with parents and school officials. Threats were made by the parents, and the 27-year-old teacher, a white woman, was put on desk duty while an investigation was launched. Even though the school ended up backing the teacher, she refused to return to the classroom, citing fears for her own safety [see Holloway, "School"; "Teacher"; "Threatened"; "Unswayed"].
The incident received a fair amount of commentary, including a New York Times op-ed article by Jill Nelson. In the article, Nelson argues that what the Nappy Hair controversy illustrates is not the racial insensitivity of the white teacher or the school [End Page 9] system—as the black parents argued—but that the "barriers to [. . .] self-esteem are perpetuated not by the white community but by the black one." For Nelson, the black community remains overly sensitive about certain representations of blackness. She suggests that such attitudes may have their origin in slavery and in the adoption of the valorization of white physical features by African descendants from their masters. In this, she follows critics such as Kobena Mercer, who writes in "Black Hair/Style Politics" that "black people's hair has been historically devalued as the most visible stigmata of blackness, second only to skin" . Inevitably, representations such as those at stake in the classroom controversy find their historical background in minstrelsy: "In the minstrel stereotype of Sambo [. . .] the 'frizzy' hair of the character is an essential part of the iconography of inferiority. In children's books and vaudeville minstrelsy, the 'woolly' hair is ridiculed, just as aspects of black people's speech were lampooned in both popular music hall and the nineteenth-century novel as evidence of the 'quaint folkways' and 'cultural backwardness of the slaves'" . Nelson concludes: "Too many African-Americans," she writes, "have internalized and passed down these beliefs, as if proximity to whiteness inherently enhances our worth."
Nelson's reading of the controversy is neither incorrect nor adequate. Certainly, the parents' outrage with the book—more precisely, with the...