- Leaving WAS Behind
Because what WAS is one thing, and now it is not because it is dead.—William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (1936)
Warren’s narrative of black letters is a rich and thoroughgoing—albeit, implicit—critique of our post-racial moment. But his point here is not to convince us that we are past something, or even that, to riff off of our Mr. Faulkner, WAS is. Instead, I locate Warren’s critique of our post-Obama moment in the concluding chapter of the book, in the middle of explicating Michael Thomas’s 2007 novel Man Gone Down. Paraphrasing a particularly melancholy moment in the text, Warren observes: “Or to put it more prosaically, with the struggles of the civil rights era now in the rearview mirror of history, the policies and programs resulting from that time seem, in the eyes of the narrator, to have gone awry” (131). In essence, Warren notes, like Adolph Reed, that black bourgeoisie children of the hipster generation both applaud the opportunities afforded to black bodies in this post-civil rights era and look back upon segregation and its suturing of black community as necessity with some nostalgia. The next generation wants to have its cake and eat it too. But when it comes to this post-Jim Crow and, by extension, post-civil rights world that is so remarked upon by bloggers, activists, critics and professors of black life and letters, I wonder if we occupy the same world at all. In brief, I wonder if instead of thinking about the world, that I am witnessing the creation of a world.
“God Hates Fa(n)gs”1
The world I live in is punctuated by a dream deferred. Each day I wake up and know that before the day is over, I will be reminded that marriage—an institution I care little about as a ’70s feminist—is between a man and a woman, and across the roadways in my county I can still see a sign or two that reminds me that “God hates fags”—a kind of retroactive blasphemy (who gets to speak for God anyway?) now appropriated for political purposes by religious groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. Post-civil rights? Are we kidding ourselves? At my job I am the only out, visibly black woman in the college—when I remind colleagues that I am integrating the university but have no National Guard to help me do so, they are both surprised by the fact of my uniqueness and puzzled by my recourse to that history to drive home my point. Queers have long since been cautioned to stay away from the use of the moniker “civil rights,” but because of my racial blackness, [End Page 582] I choose to embrace both at moments and am reminded in the visages of my colleagues how nonsensical such togetherness really is. To whose body does this history truly belong? During my first and last Pride march, I was shocked to see that the overwhelming majority of anti-gay protestors who came in carloads from as far away as Charlotte were people of color. In this regard, if black struggle is to get its hearing in the pages of black fiction—or at least its novel tradition—then that struggle has been defined in the narrowest of terms, and for the profit of a few. Which, I think, is Warren’s point here, a point driven home both by the critique leveled against the myopic turn of a literature and by example.
There are several opportunities in Warren’s study to think through the racial project’s several commitments. While his focus here is to demonstrate that our literature’s political commitments are marked by a past that makes the contemporary field a post-African American literature field, it is worrying to find the racial so lonely, outstanding in its field, so to speak. If a literature can be and is defined by what it is not, then the racial project must drag sexuality, gender, and even a biologically bankrupt sex into this orbit of blackness. What would WAS be, given this new constellation of...