Making Autobiography and Racial-Self-Making

by zunguzungu

David Roediger opens his brilliant The Wages of Whiteness with a bit of autobiography: growing up in Cairo, at the point where the Ohio river meets the Mississippi, he was educated to a knowledge of racism and white supremacy that was hardly hindered by the fact that he, personally, didn’t actually know any black people. The implicit point (which becomes more explicit later on) is simple: white supremacy, as he experienced it, is not really about black people, it just uses them as its object, on its way towards something else.

His book is therefore in sharp disagreement with someone like Winthrop Jordan, for whom “race” is a given (and for whom there are very basic psychological reasons why white people feared, then hated, and then despised black people, a point Jordan illustrates in White over Black at great and intimidating length). In Jordan’s narrative, in other words, racism begins when different races met each other, “race” being an existing precondition, and a thing which (it is implied) will continue in some form as long as they are in contact. For Roediger, on the other hand, “white” and “black” are very much in quotation marks; what they mean is neither a given, nor are they terms that mean anything in a permanent sense: race is a thing which is always being practiced and made according to social necessities, and as these practices and necessities change with changing society, so too does “race” change, fundamentally. That, you see, is an empowering gesture: in contrast to the kind of fatalism implied by the “race is forever” argument of a Winthrop Jordan, Roediger’s conception of race as a formation, a construction, or a production allow for the possibility that it might be made in different ways, or even unmade altogether. The title of Theodore Allen’s The Invention of the White Race makes this point explicitly, and takes direct aim at the weaknesses in Jordan’s book to argue, again, that race is thing that must be made. And as Roediger’s more recent work (Towards the Abolition of Whiteness) argues, it is also a thing which must be un-made.

As a sidenote, this intellectual debate is related to one of the ways that Edward Said (of the previous post) can be usefully critiqued. One problem with “Orientalism” as a framing paradigm is that it conflates the kinds of orientalizing gazes that Europe used to understand the other it was Crusading against in the middle ages with the radically different ways an explicitly imperial Europe understood its colonial others in places like India (and with, as a bonus, the ways that “The West” has taken in recent years to understanding “the Muslim world”). Said has a tendency to run all these things together, to produce (ironically) a timeless and unchanging “Orientalist,” a figure who who continually re-imagines and reproduces a timeless and unchanging “Oriental.”

The trouble is, though, there is a kind of continuity between the ways that wars with the Saracens were understood in medieval Christiandom and the style of contemporary doctrines of “preemptive war,” as Bush’s revealing lapses into “crusade” rhetoric occasionally indicate. By the same token, for all the limitations of Winthrop Jordan’s work (and some of the psychoanalysis seems particularly sketchy to me), it is also true that colonial-era attitudes towards African slaves and free-men are part of the same history that informs the ways Barack Obama can and cannot run for president. Roediger wouldn’t deny that, of course; his work as an engaged historian indicates precisely his belief in the past’s relevance to present struggles. And how to navigate historical continuity and historical change, at the same time, is one of the most difficult rhetorical and conceptual problems that a historian has to grapple with. I personally favor Raymond Williams’ notion of “structures of feeling”: as he observes in the dazzling opening to The Country and the City, the difference between rural and urban in medieval England was completely and totally different than it was in industrializing England, and neither has a nearly strong enough empirical corellation with how urban and rural are integrated today. These terms, “urban” and “rural,” simply mean different things. And yet, he notes, the fact that we continue to use the same words even as we reinvent them indicates that our feelings about urban and rural have a certain continuity of structure, a fact which gives the social scientist something to grip on to as everything else changes.

I tend to be quite skeptical of the autobiographical gesture. W.E.B. DuBois, the patron saint of The Wages of Whiteness (and this blog, sort of) once claimed that “autobiographies have had little lure; repeatedly they assume too much or too little: too much in dreaming that one’s own life has greatly influenced the world; too little in the reticences, repressions, and distortions which come because men do not dare to be perfectly frank” and my dissertation will make a certain amount of hay out of the fact that he wrote five or so autobiographies. But in moments like this, DuBois was his own best critic, and he always cast a critical eye on the ways that “autobiography” could function as a technology of the self, to use a terminology not his own; likewise, the autobiographical gesture in The Wages of Whiteness also functions as a way of asserting a kind of control over history and personal history, a kind of place to stand from which the world can be moved. As Roediger explains it,

“Until very recently, I would have skipped all this autobiographical material, sure that my ideas on race and the white working class grew out of conscious reflection based on historical research. But much of that reflection led back to what my early years might have taught me: the role of race in defining how white workers look not only at Blacks but at themselves; the pervasiveness of race; the complex mixture of hate, sadness and longing in the racist thought of white workers; the relationship between race and ethnicity.”

This claim seems to me at least very optimistic, and perhaps somewhat of a delusion: the idea that one can transcend one’s history by looking back over it, by transforming the formative experiences of one’s life into “teachings” that can be discarded or retained, depending. I guess it’s just that I’m a believer in the nature/nurture debate: we are what we are, and whether that being is more determined by the stuff we were born with or by the experience we have been blessed to receive, there is no self that can make itself without reference to that formative experience. This is far from an argument for fatalistic acceptance of the status quo, of course; as Roediger puts it, “the complex mixture of hate, sadness and longing” is a volatile mixture, offering many choices and possibilities. As historians put it, beware monocausal outcomes, and this is just as true with personal histories: the overdetermination of the self means that we’re not so much determined by some singular identity as we are racked by conflicts between the many different and contradictory parts of ourselves that make us up.

So maybe there’s nothing necessarily so wrong with an optimistic delusion or two, and maybe it’s okay to occasionally assert, against all the available evidence, that “Yes we can.” And the gesture of Roediger’s authorial position, the claim that he could grow up amidst a culture of white supremacy and race hatred, and yet transcend that origin, to claim that we make race instead of being made by it, that we make ourselves instead of the reverse, well, I find such a claim as logically unconvincing as I find it emotionally necessary.