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Speculating Darkly, or The Folk Surreal Future (2 of 3)
LADDER FOR BOOKER T. WASHINGTON
This section header from Terrance Hayes’s “Arbor for Butch” reads as both dedication and a humorous, signifying/subverting of Booker T. Washington’s famous strategy of social uplift for African-Americans at the turn of the nineteenth century, commonly referred to as bootstrapping—that one changes one’s economic and social circumstances by a healthy amount of sweat, ingenuity, and sheer hutzpah, by not waiting for others but by pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. Boot-strapping is very American and also very short-sighted in that it does not account for the historical, political, and economic circumstances (i.e. slavery, necropolitics, and Jim Crow) that plunged African-Americans and their communities into a state of abject citizenship in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; thus, boot-strapping ignores the very real possibility that one might not be able to afford the boots, or one might not even be allowed into Macy’s to buy the boots for which one might need in order to lift oneself up. Washington’s notions of social uplift are more nuanced and complex than what I can account for in a blog post, and many books have been written on the merits and demerits of his strategy for political and economic enfranchisement for African Americans, so I will not rehash these arguments now. You’ll have to do some outside reading.
The section header as dedication (i.e. this section of the poem is a ladder for (dedicated to) Booker T. Washington) signifies in a multiplicitious fashion. If this section of the poem is a ladder for Washington, a tool for Washington to climb out from somewhere, then it is also a competing theoretical framework, a competing theory or strategy concerning social uplift. This might not make sense. Let me try this again.
More simply stated, Hayes offers Washington a ladder, a tool. Hayes offering Washington a tool is rather significant if one takes into account Washington’s support of trade schools and agrarian training for African Americans in the late nineteenth century. Washington petitioned for African Americans to change their lot in the US via learning industry and trade, prioritizing this route for economic enfranchisement over a more outwardly political one like placing more black folks in political office on the local, state, and federal level. He started Tuskegee Institute, which is known more for the Tuskegee Airmen, the elite squad of black, World War II fighter pilots, as an experiment, than as a place where black folks could gain training and bring it back to their communities. The school, the endeavor is laudable; it was and is necessary. I, myself, finished my undergraduate education at one of these schools, one of these experiments known as Morehouse College. And I would never disparage the need for these schools. Trust me; they are very, very necessary. However, what Hayes signifies and challenges is the smooth narrative of ascension that Washington’s plan of social uplift purports; and, in so doing, Hayes also challenges contemporary narratives of black uplift through black middle-class aspirations and black respectability. Of course, Hayes’s slave does not want his children to be in bondage, but what happens when they leave the plantation, leave his fatherly gaze? So much can happen on a journey. There’s so much danger leaving the folk behind, even if that leaving behind means freedom. Hayes seeks to acknowledge this difficulty, this jaggedness in the narrative that would allow a slave to keep his children in bondage rather than see them run toward what most would assume is a better life.
Hayes’s interruption of this narrative of manumission also subverts the literary-historical narrative of popular ideas of slave, black bodies in print. I will take up the ethics of black bodies in print in another blog post, but for now, let’s stay with this line of thought. If we go back through popular narratives of slavery, popular narratives of the slave’s ascension, they are always told as the slave seeking at all cost. Think Frederick Douglass whooping the slave-breaker Covey’s ass. Think Harriet Jacobs hiding in the attic. Think Henry Box Brown mailing himself to freedom. Think Kunta Kinte getting his foot cut off for trying to run away. Think Harriet Tubman tirelessly running thousands of slaves through the underground railroad and allegedly threatening those who wanted to go back to the plantation with a gun. This narrative is the dominant narrative of slavery, resistance, and agency in print and popular culture. Again, there is nothing wrong with this narrative. I think this narrative is very necessary. I am a fan of Tarantino’s Django Unchained. However, these narratives shun another narrative, one that evinces a bit more jaggedness because of the way it thwarts our understanding of agency and humanity—the narrative of slave who feared losing kin more than he or she valued alleged freedom. Hayes’s slave embraces the abjection of keeping his kin close even if that means keeping them in bondage. That’s the difficulty and beauty of the South—that choice, that abjection. Again, I know that I may be very close to essentializing and romanticizing the South. There are many, many black folks in the modern-day South who would argue that these narratives don’t help humanize African Americans. And I would respond that these narratives do more than humanize the enslaved black folks in the South, they express the subjectivity of citizen-humans who are also objects. And if I wanted to be really reckless, I would ask: why are we, black folks, so invested in being human? Isn’t Kant and the Enlightenment part of the reason we’re in this mess? But, you know, I’m talking real reckless (as Kanye West would say), but not really. Aside: When I ask these questions about the contemporary investment in the human, I am just recklessly thinking with and through Bruno Latour’s argument in We Have Never Been Modern, that the division between the human and nonhuman is a false narrative line created by modern man as a way of dividing order from disorder, subjects from objects, the dirty from the clean. I am also putting Latour in conversation with Fred Moten (In the Break), Saidiya Hartman (Scenes of Subjection) and Eduoard Glissant (Poetics of Relation). But we don’t have time for that discussion. But it’s hard not to get all Academe-y when writing about poetry, particularly beautifully complex, historically interesting, and aesthetically rigorous poems, but back to Hayes.
Hayes imagining this possibility forces his reader to dwell in the ontological and epistemological difficulty of being something akin to human. We are made to deal with improvisatory nature of having to make family when one is not considered, by some, to be human enough for family. We are made to watch and think through how one assembles disorderly order. Quite simply, Hayes speculates darkly. Hayes presses the face of the reader to funk of black bodies who chose to embrace the abjection of slavery rather than wade in the waters of manumission. Through the ur-folk of slavery, Hayes’s slave-father surreally anticipates and theorizes the future—the Great Migration, White Flight, Black Flight to the suburbs, Keeping it Real, Keeping it Gutter, Keeping it 100, Black Authenticity, the alleged Post-Racial. Is this a post-racial argument? Is America post-racial? (In my best Raekwon voice) Naah, son, not at all.