The Last Discovery of America
In his dazzling new memoir, Richard Rodriguez reflects on the color brown and the meaning of Hispanics to the life of America today. Rodriguez argues that America has been brown since its inception-since the moment the African and the European met within the Indian eye. But more than simply a book about race, Brown is about America in the broadest sense-a look at what our country is, full of surprising observations by a writer who is a marvelous stylist as well as a trenchant observer and thinker.
The Triad of Alexis de Tocqueville
Two women and a child in a glade beside a spring. Beyond them, the varnished wilderness wherein bright birds cry. The child is chalk, Europe's daughter. Her dusky attendants, a green Indian and a maroon slave.
The scene, from Democracy in America, is discovered by that most famous European traveler to the New World, Alexis de Tocqueville, aristocratic son of the Enlightenment, liberal, sickly, gray, violet, lacking the vigor of the experiment he has set himself to observe.
"I remember . . . I was traveling through the forests which still cover the state of Alabama. . . ."
In a clearing, at some distance, an Indian woman appears first to Monsieur, followed by a "Negress," holding by the hand "a little white girl of five or six years."
The Indian: "A sort of barbarous luxury" set off her costume; "rings of metal were hanging from her nostrils and ears, her hair, which was adorned with glass beads, fell loosely upon her shoulders. . . ." The Negress wore "squalid European garments."
Such garments are motifs of de Tocqueville's pathos. His description intends to show the African and the Indian doomed by history in corresponding but opposing ways. (History is a coat cut only to the European.)
"The young Indian, taking the child in her arms, lavished upon her such fond caresses as mothers give, while the Negress endeavored, by various little artifices, to attract the [child's] attention. . . ."
The white child "displayed in her slightest gestures a consciousness of superiority that formed a strange contrast with her infantine weakness; as if she received the attentions of her companions with a sort of condescension."
Thus composed: The Indian. The Negress. The white child.
". . . In the picture that I have just been describing there was something peculiarly touching; a bond of affection here united the oppressors with the oppressed, and the effort of Nature to bring them together rendered still more striking the immense distance placed between them by prejudice and the laws."
At Monsieur's approach, this natural colloquy is broken. He becomes the agent of history. Seeing him, the Indian suddenly rises, "push[es] the child roughly away and, giving [Monsieur] an angry look, plunge[s] into the thicket."
The Negress rests; awaits de Tocqueville's approach.
Neither response satisfies the European. The African, de Tocqueville writes, has lost the memory of ancestors, of custom and tongue; the African has experienced degradation to his very soul, has become a true slave. "Violence made him a slave, and the habit of servitude gives him the thoughts and desires of a slave; he admires his tyrants more than he hates them, and finds his joy and his pride in the servile imitation of those who oppress him."
The bejeweled Indian, alternately, is "condemned . . . to a wandering life, full of inexpressible sufferings," because European interlopers have unbalanced the provender of Nature.
And, de Tocqueville remarks (a fondness for fable), whereas the Negro's response to mistreatment is canine, the Indian's is feline. "The Negro makes a thousand fruitless efforts to insinuate himself among men who repulse him. . . ." The Indian is filled with diffidence toward the white, "has his imagination inflated with the pretended nobility of his origin, and lives and dies in the midst of these dreams of pride." The Indian refuses civilization; the African slave is rendered unfit for it.
But cher Monsieur: You saw the Indian sitting beside the African on a drape of baize. They were easy together. The sight of them together does not lead you to wonder about a history in which you are not the narrator?
These women are but parables of your interest in yourself. Rather than consider the nature of their intimacy, you are preoccupied alone with the meaning of your intrusion. You in your dusty leather boots, cobbled on the rue du Faubourg St.-HonorŽ. Your tarnished silver snuffbox, your saddlebag filled with the more ancient dust of books. You in your soiled cambric. Vous-m&ecireme.
A boy named Buddy came up beside me in the schoolyard. I don't remember what passed as prologue, but I do not forget what Buddy divulged to me: If you're white, you're all right;
It was as though Buddy had taken me to a mountaintop and shown me the way things lay in the city below.
In Sacramento, my brown was not halfway between black and white. On the leafy streets, on the east side of town, where my family lived, where Asians did not live, where Negroes did not live, my family's Mexican shades passed as various. We did not pass "for" white; my family passed among white, as in one of those old cartoons where Clarabelle the Cow goes shopping downtown and the mercantile class of dogs does not remark her exception. As opposed to Amos and Andy, whose downtown was a parallel universe of no possible admixture. And as I easily pass in these pages between being an American and regarding America from a distance.
As opposed, also, to the famous photograph of a girl in Little Rock in the pages of Life magazine. A black girl, no older than Alice, must pass alone through the looking glass. I remember wondering what my brown would have meant to Little Rock, how my brown would have withstood Little Rock.
In the Sacramento of the 1950s, it was as though White simply hadn't had time enough to figure Brown out. It was a busy white time. Brown was like the skinny or fat kids left over after the team captains chose sides. "You take the rest"-my cue to wander away to the sidelines, to wander away.
In those years, I recall seeing a movie called The Defiant Ones. Two convicts-Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis-were shackled to each other. The movie did not occur to me racially or politically but erotically. The child's obvious question concerned privacy. By comparison, the pairing of the Lone Ranger and Tonto on television did occur to me racially. They were twin scourges, upholders of the law of the West. They were of compatible mind and they were of complementary skill-one sneaky, one full-charge. I noticed Tonto had no vocabulary but gravitas. Of more immediate interest to me was that each wore the symbol of his reserved emotion-the mask; the hair in a bun. I didn't identify with Tonto any more than with Lone, or less. I identified with their pairing.
My parents had come from Mexico, a short road in my imagination. I felt myself as coming from a caramelized planet, an upside-down planet, pineapple-cratered. Though I was born here, I came from the other side of the looking glass, as did Alice, though not alone like Alice. Downtown I saw lots of brown people. Old men on benches. Winks from Filipinos. Sikhs who worked in the fields were the most mysterious brown men, their heads wrapped in turbans. They were the rose men. They looked like roses. And the Palestinian communist bookie-entirely hearsay-who ran a tobacco store of pungent brownness (the smell of rum-soaked cigars and cheap, cherry-scented pipe tobacco) was himself as brown as a rolled cigar, but the more mysterious for having been born in Bethlehem.
And as we passed, we passed very close to the young man, close enough for me to smell him, something anointing his hair. He was the most beautiful man (my first consciousness of the necessity for oxymoron) I remember seeing as a boy. He wore a suit-vest over his naked torso. He wore a woman's gold locket, with a dark red stone. He was petting a dog in the street. His pant knees were dirty. He smelled of coconut. He smiled brilliantly as we passed.
The missing tooth.
Heepsie, my mother whispered, taking me firmly by the hand, refusing his blazing notice with an averted nod.
I had seen the gypsy's mother-she must be his mother-dozens of times, sitting on a lawn chair outside her "office" on H Street, near my father's work. There was a sign in the window beneath which she sat, a blank hand outlined in neon. She never sought or met my gaze. She looked Mexican to me. Not Mexican, my parents assured me. My brother said, Watch out, Ricky, she's sitting there reading your tombstone.
A boy with a face as dark as mine, but several years older, stepped out of the crowd at the state fair to press a warm dime into my hand. Said nothing; wanted nothing, apparently; disappeared. His curious solemnity. But I interpreted-because I remember-the transaction as one of brown eyes.
A friend of mine, born and raised in Hong Kong, remembers attending British schools in Hong Kong; remembers being constrained to learn about India. My friend learned nothing about China; instead, the Gita and Only connect, Lord Curzon, Mother Ganga, mulligatawny, Mahatma Gandhi. The British obsession with India-as its existential opposite-seemed to my friend an affront to China. But surely there was also a kind of freedom in growing up without the Briton's attention?
My uncle from India was several times called "nigger" by strangers downtown in Sacramento. His daughter, Delia, forbade the rhyme I learned at school. Eenie, meenie, mynie, moe. . . . But her eyes softened as she corrected me and her mouth softened.
Brown is a bit of a cave in my memory. Like Delia's eyes.
Lights up, then, on "Theme from a Summer Place," on blue and gold and electric guitar strings. A decade on. I am staying for a month of summer in Laguna Beach with the family of my best friend, Larry Faherty. I am covered with a cool film of Sea & Ski, as is Larry, though I suspect the insistence on this precaution by Larry's mother is gratuitous in my case. Larry's mother is sitting on the deck with a neighbor, a red-faced woman with protuberant pale blue eyes, penciled eyebrows. The bug-eyed woman burbles into her tomato juice cocktail, "some niggers . . ." (ah, ah, ah, I can feel the hairs lift on the back of my neck) ". . . some niggers came onto the beach over the weekend . . ." (she glances at me while she is saying this; her eyes are needles; I am the camel) ". . . we let them know they weren't welcome." It is not clear where I fit into her use of the first-person plural. Finally, however, my presence does not disturb her narrative.
Years later, the same story, a different summer-Columbia, South Carolina. A different storyteller-a lawyer in New York rehearses his famous anecdote, "The Hawaiian Stranger," in three passages; two tumblers of scotch.
1. It is summer, 1944; World War II is coming to an end. (There is no tragic coast to this story; the boys in it will not taste the tin can of death.) The lawyer's mother, gallantly streaming, has decided to invite a bevy of "boys so far from home" from a nearby army base onto her lawn for a Fourth of July picnic. Of course a complement of young ladies has been invited as well, Sallys and Dorothys, women from town and from the college.
2. The day dawns golden. Syrup and mosquitoes. The hired help arrive first, disinterested capable hands. By and by, the young men arrive. Smiles, sweat rings, aftershave. The young women arrive also, in summer dresses. There will be games to put the gentlemen at ease. The women arrange themselves in wicker chairs, sip cool drinks and appraise the gentlemen from the shade of the porch.
But, "South Carolina in summer . . . ," the lawyer sighs, five decades later, rattling the ice in his glass.
3. Scotch #2. Conspicuous among the young recruits is a tall brown man with short-cropped hair. The Hawaiian. "Poor Mama. 'Another Coca-Cola, Mr. Cooke?' (She could just about manage that one.) But, during the volleyball game, Mr. Cooke sheds first his shirt, then his T-shirt." The narrator remembers the sight of brown shoulders, brown nipples, a navel that tempted vertigo-"Why do we remember such things, and not who invented the cotton gin?"-and the sweat streaming down Mr. Cooke's rib cage; his flared nostrils.
Poor Narrator. Nevertheless, Mama keeps her stride, marching her fruit-bobbling sandals into the house and back out to the yard. More potato salad? Key lime pie. Lemonade. "Each time she'd pass me-I was sitting alone under the shade tree-she'd detour; she'd come around the trunk of the tree, bend down so close I could smell her powder-she pretended to be fixing my collar or working on my cowlick-but her whisper came down furious as a flyswatter: 'He isn't either a nigger, you mind yourself, he's Hawaiian.'"
Stories darken with time, some of them.
The first book by an African American I read was Carl T. Rowan's memoir, Go South to Sorrow. I found it on the bookshelf at the back of my fifth-grade classroom, an adult book. I can remember the quality of the morning on which I read. It was a sunlit morning in January, a Saturday morning, cold, high, empty. I sat in a rectangle of sunlight, near the grate of the floor heater in the yellow bedroom. And as I read, I became aware of warmth and comfort and optimism. I was made aware of my comfort by the knowledge that others were not, are not, comforted. Carl Rowan at my age was not comforted. The sensation was pleasurable.
Only a few weeks ago, in the year in which I write, Carl T. Rowan died. Hearing the news, I felt the sadness one feels when a writer dies, a writer one claims as one's own-as potent a sense of implication as for the loss of a body one has known. Over the years, I had seen Rowan on TV. He was not, of course he was not, the young man who had been with me by the heater-the photograph on the book jacket, the voice that spoke through my eyes. The muscles of my body must form the words and the chemicals of my comprehension must form the words, the windows, the doors, the Saturdays, the turning pages of another life, a life simultaneous with mine.
It is a kind of possession, reading. Willing the Other to abide in your present. His voice, mixed with sunlight, mixed with Saturday, mixed with my going to bed and then getting up, with the pattern and texture of the blanket, with the envelope from a telephone bill I used as a bookmark. With going to Mass. With going to the toilet. With my mother in the kitchen, with whatever happened that day and the next; with clouds forming over the Central Valley, with the flannel shirt I wore, with what I liked for dinner, with what was playing at the Alhambra Theater. I remember Carl T. Rowan, in other words, as myself, as I was. Perhaps that is what one mourns.
In the Clunie Public Library in Sacramento, in those last years of a legally segregated America, there was no segregated shelf for Negro writers. Frederick Douglass on the same casement with Alexis de Tocqueville, Benjamin Franklin. Today, when our habit is willfully to confuse literature with sociology, with sorting, with trading in skins, we imagine the point of a "life" is to address some sort of numerical average, common obstacle or persecution. Here is a book "about" teenaged Chinese-American girls. So it is shelved.
I found this advice, the other day, in an essay by Joseph Addison, his first essay for the Spectator, the London journal, Thursday, March 1, 1711. "I have observed, that a reader seldom puruses a Book with Pleasure, 'til he knows the writer of it be a black or a fair Man, of a mild or cholerick Disposition, Married or a Bachelor, with other particulars of the like nature, that conduce very much to the right understanding of an Author. To gratifie this Curiosity, which is so natural to a Reader. . . ."
It is one thing to know your author-man or woman or gay or black or paraplegic or president. It is another thing to choose only man or woman or et cetera, as the only quality of voice empowered to address you, as the only class of sensibility or experience able to understand you, or that you are able to understand.
How a society orders its bookshelves is as telling as the books a society writes and reads. American bookshelves of the twenty-first century describe fractiousness, reduction, hurt. Books are isolated from one another, like gardenias or peaches, lest they bruise or become bruised, or, worse, consort, confuse. If a man in a wheelchair writes his life, his book will be parked in a blue-crossed zone: "Self-Help" or "Health." There is no shelf for bitterness. No shelf for redemption. The professor of Romance languages at Dresden, a convert to Protestantism, was tortured by the Nazis as a Jew-only that-a Jew. His book, published sixty years after the events it recounts, is shelved in my neighborhood bookstore as "Judaica." There is no shelf for irony.
Books should confuse. Literature abhors the typical. Literature flows to the particular, the mundane, the greasiness of paper, the taste of warm beer, the smell of onion or quince. Auden has a line: "Ports have names they call the sea." Just so will literature describe life familiarly, regionally, in terms life is accustomed to use-high or low matters not. Literature cannot by this impulse betray the grandeur of its subject-there is only one subject: What it feels like to be alive. Nothing is irrelevant. Nothing is typical.
It was only from the particular life-a single life, a singular voice named Frederick Douglass, a handsome man, anybody can see that, a tall man, a handsome man, who lived and died in another century, another place, another skin, another light, the light changing every hour, every day, within a room; he did not choose the room or the hour or the skin-that a brown boy in Sacramento could sense the universality of dissimilarity. The offense of slavery (the lure of literature) was that Douglass's life was precisely different from mine in California, a century later.
"The recurrent strands of his thought—family, education, race, sex, California, America, Mexico—gain a new resonance each time and stand, in the end, for the complexity of a whole greater than the sum of its parts." —The New York Times Book Review
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