- DuBois’s Van Dyke
Dedication: Angelina Guenthner,
“occupation baby” / mother /
Russelsheim / Cleveland
What is funnier than an Afro-German? Tell me about it. I’ve been laughing my whole leben long. I wonder if DuBois saw that picture in das book by herr doctor about Hairy Peter? Der Struwwelpeter? In it, cherubic boys, call them buben, knaben, or batches of cold Robbie, they mock an African walking by. Bone in the face. Spear in the hand. All of a sudden, the other side of Santa Claus chimneys on in. Nikolaus, a strudel in your mouth to say and harder to sell to kiddies more into cells than crucifixions. He chides their impertinence and dunks them in a cistern of boiling tar, the only mechanism by which knaben, buben, or icy batches of Robbie could ever thaw out to good old-fashioned blackness. The only other way, my Oma knows all about. But DuBois did not. That was no genetischen touch of the German tar brush on his Great Barrington Massachusetts face. Nein. Every German sign in the photograph of DuBois is there by dint of affectation rather than affection. That Van Dyke pointing his chin to bedevil the untalented ninth with a logic more angular than theirs — That is compliments the South of Germany, turn-of-the-century, and some of that grant-fellowship money for the sharpest Harvard tool in the shed — off to German shores to trumpet the American mind, shoring up Yankee education with Herder and Hegel, Marx and Schelling. Thus DuBois (so hung up on the probable Frenchification of his name he once taught an audience how to pronounce it — the final accent like re-joice), drove an iron spike through his helmet of sorrow songs. No equivalent howl ever passed echt deutsch lippen. You catch what I’m slippin? He lived a new hit every day while in Berlin auch. Nein body knew his Hölderlin. Every time Immanuel, he Kant. Handel Goethe? Ach, yes he could, and he sang it from Fisk to Fichte. Roll, Johan, roll. And while you’re at it, go down München. Because those rolls are delicious. Down menschen too. Swinging low with a commencement sweet on Bismarck and O Schiller. You don’t think he did? Go ring them Wilhelm Bells and see. He was sweet on alles Deutsch. [End Page 22] He cottoned to them as a concept. A plate right out of Godey’s, aber pickled, illustrations by George Schuyler who couldn’t draw a verdammt but had a handle on beer stein envy and every variation of lederhosen emulation. Next to the Teuton, the Cheelowthu, and the Ulonabla, even the middle-class Philadelphian swells tidy with an Imperial on his chin and folk in the blood. Folk in the shape of a car? Why not? Just ask that other facial-hair fiasco who drew himself a bug for hippies (who hate him) to love. Folk in the shape of a song? Fragen sie auf them Weavers who knew enough to steal those bars he installed on the page after that other ex-colored man and his brother forged them. Folk reveals more than tongues and faces. These are but the nouns of identity; folk, the verb. So when you feel that itch to ask why my daughter’s name is such a German mouthful, or why my skin doesn’t match the maps or dusk enough for you to picture me teaching the cakewalk to the Von Trapps, folk is what you’ll get. [End Page 23]
Michael A. Chaney is a professor of English and chair of the African and African American Studies Program at Dartmouth College. His book, Reading Lessons in Seeing: Mirrors, Masks, and Mazes in the Autobiographical Graphic Novel, is forthcoming. His flash fictions appear in Los Angeles Review, Fourteen Hills, Epiphany, Wigleaf, and Diagram.