Young Englishmen, Black Boys

by zunguzungu

That racism “infantilizes” people of color shouldn’t be news to anyone. Calling a black man a boy (or a black woman a girl) means something recognizably similar in contexts as different as almost any part of Africa or the Western hemisphere, and farther abroad than that. So when, in 1952, Dylan Thomas referred to the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard as written in “young English,” he was only playing an interesting variation on a well-worn theme. After all, while Tutuola made his reputation as a writer on the strength of that review, the idea of “young English” clearly defines a very particular kind of cultural hierarchy, infantilizing populations instead of particular adults.

But it’s at least worth taking seriously the fact that Thomas thought he was praising Tutuola’s “thronged, grisly and bewitching story” by calling it a “nightmare of indescribable adventures.” Tutuola’s writing blends basic ignorance of standard English with an equal measure of cavalier disinterest in it, and a desire to be “bewitched” could make that devil’s brew into a particular kind of virtue for a white book-buying public, the same way Paul Laurence Dunbar broke into print by imitating white dialect writers. And just as William Dean Howells introduced Dunbar to white writers by using his own authorial stature as contrast, so too does Dylan Thomas’ review distinguish such writing from the kind of literature a white writer like himself would produce. That Thomas’ Welsh-ness recedes into the background should underscore what calling The Palm Wine Drinkard a work of “young English” accomplishes: it makes a Welsh writer into a practitioner of “mature” English. As with Norman Rush, here, paradoxically, it is the things which the white writer can’t describe which make him white. 

Thomas was certainly not the only person to flood the presses in 1952 with retrospectively wince-worthy expressions of praise, though. The New Yorker, for example, carefully placed Tutuola in the deep misty past, writing that: “Mr Tutuola tells his story as if nothing like it had ever been written down before…One catches a glimpse of the very beginning of literature, that moment when writing at last seizes and pins down the myths and legends of an analphabetic culture.” This is high praise, of a sort: Mr. Tutuola, after all, has invented literature. Well done. But “we” also look back on that achievement from a very different place (or rather time) than the one he inhabits: for Tutuola, written literature is a step forward, while for “us,” it’s something so far in the past that we strive to glimpse it and pin it down, like an insect collector with his prey. Tutuola’s book is therefore given a kind of objective value, but only as a historical text, the way pinning down an insect for its DNA can tell us something about human evolution. And however remarkable an achievement it may be from that abstract perspective, The New Yorker’s praise becomes damningly faint if, for example, we use it to place Tutuola and Thomas side by side: Tutuola re-invented the Model-T in his garage, but Dylan Thomas is selling a 2007 Jaguar, incorporating hundreds of years of engineering innovation by auto-mechanics as talented as Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot.  Which car do you want to drive? Re-inventing the wheel is an impressive thing to do, as impressive as re-inventing electricity in the depths of the Venezuelan jungle, but Pierre Renards like Tutuola don’t get to cash royalty checks every time the Quixote gets re-translated.

Johannes Fabian observed a long time ago, in Time and the Other, that anthropologists used and use the idea of different conceptions of time to keep “primitive” and “modern” peoples distinct from each other. Space, via such a strategy, becomes more than simply the universe’s way of keeping things from crashing into each other; it becomes an expression of time, such that people in the deep jungles of Africa can be seen to live in the deep human past while scientific research in London, Paris, and London represents the cutting edge of human progress and historical development. The fact that, in an objectively true sense, they actually exist at the same time and in the same world, usually in direct contact with each other, therefore becomes a scandal for anthropologists, as Fabian quotes Maxwell Owusu for noting: almost all the classic ethnographic writing on “primitive” people has to pretend that those people haven’t been impacted by colonialism or the “modern” world, the same way the past is uninfected by the future. Ethnographers have had such a love for studying “primitive” people living in societies “unspoiled by civilization” that, for example, they have been willing to overlook the ways such societies have so often been under colonial rule for decades, sometimes centuries. Calling a reasonably well-educated Yoruba civil servant “young” (and wrongly presuming him to be ignorant of the European literary tradition) calls upon this long tradition of understanding difference in geographical origin as difference in time, and is, as such, a kind of infantilization.

The New York Time Book Review, however, infantilized Tutuola in a different way, writing that “Only a dullard who has buried his childhood under several mountains of best-selling prose could fail to respond to Tutuola’s naïve poetry.” This is odd for several different reasons, not least because anyone who has actually seen poetry should know better than to mistake Tutuola’s incredibly prosey style for verse. Tutuola used the English language like the brilliant amateur he was: the run-on sentences run into run-on paragraphs, but as the novel itself runs on and on, something amazing has a way of happening. Yet the question of why the NYT Book Review would call it “poetry,” interesting as that is, is not as interesting as the question of what kind of infantilizing gaze is on display here: the belief that, in Tutuola, we see an image of true childhood, a naïve worldview that can say something true to the part of “us” that hasn’t been buried under white writing (like that of Thomas?). After all, it’s too easy to call this “white supremacy” or “racism,” essentially true as these charges may be; as racial privileges to different types of writing are being doled out, it seems less like a zero sum game than an increasingly complicated artistic economy, a system that uses racial difference as the energy necessary to ward off entropy. “Primitivism” is, to say the least, tremendously ambiguous. 

For me, the ambiguity of the primitivism in the NYT Book Review is that it “infantilizes” not merely to define the “African” by the “Western child,” but also exactly the reverse, re-defining the “Western child” by reference to the “African.” And as clearly “racist” as that is, it’s a more ambiguous dynamic than a word like “racist” can contain. Part of the figure’s logic, after all, is that an overly modern world has lost something, something that a figure like Tutuola can provide, as infantilized writer. In such a context, his youth is less immaturity and less a lack than the very plenitude of a thing which “older” civilizations have lost. Primitivism flourished, after all, in the interwar period when “Western” civilization had so powerfully discredited itself by its wars and senseless destruction. “Who else will teach rhythm to the world, deadened by machines and cannons?” demanded (in 1945) Leopold Senghor, negritude standard bearer and future president of independent Senegal. Such negritude primitivism helped pave the way for the emergence of a figure like Tutuola, declaring that maybe “young“ English was exactly what was needed by a world torn apart by the wars and hatreds of old men. 

Without passing judgment either way, then, it’s worth thinking about why, exactly, we are so quick to take “infantilization” as a bad thing. Why does it seem so obviously pejorative to call an adult a child? Why is “children’s literature,” for example, not real literature? Why is calling a black man a boy or a grown woman a girl so clearly an act of violence? Not to say that it isn’t–in the cultural context that makes it so, it absolutely is all of these things–but we should then foreground the fact that such a cultural context is not universal. In The Afterlife is Where We Come From, for example, Alma Gottlieb notes that the Beng people of Cote d’Ivoire do not consider a child to be a “blank slate” for knowledge. Children are agents of a very particular type, of course, with knowledge of a very particular kind, but those particularities are not pejorative (and it is not a bad thing to be “childish,” especially for children). More generally, the ways that we in the West tend to “infantilize” infants themselves are striking by their absence. In the Beng worldview, infants think, act, perceive, and respond according the variety of knowledges imparted to them by their time in the “afterlife,” a term which (similarly) seems suddenly culturally specific to particular Western cosmologies.  Why, after all, do we so easily think of childhood as a stage on the way to adulthood, the same way we might think of the “afterlife” as a final telos for life itself? If there’s a pejorative register in calling Tutuola a writer of “young English” it is in the presumption that it is a good thing to not be young.

I find this incredibly suggestive, because if Beng babies are not seen as ignorant or as a blank slate for mature knowledge, then why is it that thinking of Tutuola as a writer of “young English” is so obviously pejorative and racist? After all, if not only racial infantilization is seen as a social construct, but any kind of infantilization, then what if we aren’t so much infantilizing the racial other as we are doing the reverse: using structures of feeling derived from “race” to understand/re-invent childhood? After all, the idea of the child, as an object of pedagogical attention and disciplinary violence, developed in the West at roughly the same time as did the kinds of racializations necessary to conquer the “undeveloped” world, a process by which “young” races were re-imagined as objects of pedagogical attention and disciplinary violence. What if the second preceded the first? There’s a chicken and egg kind of problem here, of course, but a word like “racism” seems like much too blunt of an instrument to parse this class of distinction. What if the West learned to patronize, discipline, and dehumanize children because it needed to patronize, discipline, and dehumanize infantilized natives?

After all, the basic premise of both colonialism in Africa and contemporary development rhetoric was and is that modern society must be created out of the void, a worldview in which “tribal” society is not an alternative, but an absence. As James Scott illustrated (in Seeing Like a State), high modernist structures of feeling both flow out of and (in order to enable themselves) replicate and reproduce this premise. Thus, faced with a society “in need” of modernization, colonial and other modernizing powers seek to dis-imagine all the already existing social infrastructures, cultural traditions, and modes of governance, to perceive the other as, essentially, an absence waiting to be filled. What better model for such an unfilled vessel than a child? How better to imagine the “native other” as in need of guidance and discipline (by an older and more mature civilization) than by imagining him as a child? Yet no matter which is the chicken and which is the egg, the ambiguity of primitivism is that it attempts to undo the entire cycle, reflecting back that maybe it‘s the wisdom of children that the world needs, or at least a more humble sense of what adults really have to offer.