Sunday, April 8, 2007

This One's for Vijay Prashad and Bill Mullen

Vijay Prashad is the author of, among many other books, Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting (on Afro-Asian connections and the myth of cultural purity). Bill Mullen is the author of, among several other books, Afro-Orientalism (on African-American intellectuals' and activists' constructions of Asia). I can't think of two better people to interpret this photo--

What's the Converse of Afro-Orientalism?

--which raises the question for me, "what's the converse of Afro-Orientalism?"

I'm fairly familiar with the territory Prashad and Mullen map. I gave a conference paper in 1999 in which I linked Silko's Almanac of the Dead to currents in African American literature and Black Studies:

From Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men to Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, from Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo to Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, from Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters to Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow, African-American (in the continental rather than national sense of the latter term) novelists have told stories about spirits of resistance. They have inspired projects like Antonio Benitez-Rojo’s The Repeating Island and Barbara Browning’s Infectious Rhythm, so it should be no surprise that these and other novelists have also inspired Almanac of the Dead. But despite the thematic and other similarities among these works, I would place Silko’s novel in most direct relation to three novels in particular--W.E.B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess, Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, and Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco--for each of these novels attempts to trace connections between the earliest encounters among Africans, Europeans, and Americans in the New World and present-day political and economic structures and movements, and each represents a different moment in internationalist Black Studies--Du Bois’s pan-Africanism and Marshall’s third worldism are well worth comparing to Silko’s indigenist narrative. In short, by analyzing how Silko’s Almanac of the Dead takes part in the Black Studies project, we can come up with ideas about how to continue its development, reach new audiences, and rethink its curricular and institutional practices and priorities.


Later it struck me that Gibson's Sprawl series also belongs in this pantheon, so to speak, and still later I finally got around to reading Reed's Japanese by Spring, which is by turns brilliant and infuriating.

Still, it strikes me that thinking about what to make of Japanese appropriations of black cultures and politics is a fairly new endeavor. The only example that comes to mind offhand is Sushi K, the parodic character from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. I attended a talk in Hawaii this January in which a Japanese pop culture scholar shared his research on actual as opposed to invented Japanese hip hop--what I took from it is that the music got better as the politics got more nationalistic, and both were in response to criticism from the mainstream hip hop press. It turns out he teaches in Fukuoka and we've hung out at the conference and here. Here's hoping he agrees to write for Mostly Harmless soon!

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

How does "Kokujin Tensai," the African-American who raps in broken Japanese, fit into all of this?

http://patrickmacias.blogs.com/er/2007/03/podcast_hot_tea.html

The Constructivist said...

Gotta be some kind of Prashad/Mullen hybrid thing. Riffing on Coco Fusco, maybe "Japanese Is Broken Here"?

spyder said...

I am also reminded of the nest of characters William Gibson creates in his triology around Idoru. The hip ghetto culture's enthrallment with an AI final fantasy, styled-out asian goddess, seems to exemplify the trend of post moderns looking further, ever further, westward (although the third book races back to England).

Silko, as a new book coming out which is related to her Almanac she says. A friend of mine, raised with her son (sometimes under her roof), has seen some of it; saying it maybe her best ever.

bill benzon said...

Ah, Japanese by Spring. I own that and have read it; perhaps I'll re-read. For a number of years I had small photo I'd clipped out of Hustler; it was a Japanese vocal quartet in black-face make-up. It astounded me when I first saw it. And then, not so long ago, I saw a photograph of some (black) West African muscians from the 1920s. They too were in black-face make-up. If you want to see grotesque, scout out a photograph of Louis Armstrong from, I think, 1954 when he was King of the Zulus at Mardi Gras. He was in black-face make-up for that (Ken Burns makes a big deal of such a photo in one episode of his jazz documentary.)

You really need to check out the animae series Samurai Champloo. It's first rate stuff, and the hip-hop on the soundtrack is very good.

The Constructivist said...

I agree, Bill--I've been into it (although not as into it as the Ghost in the Shell franchise, Full Metal Alchemist, or Cowboy Bebop) since I first caught it on Adult Swim....

The Constructivist said...

spyder, your news of a new Silko project is the best (non-family) thing about 2007 for me. i may get kicked out of the WAAGNFNP for saying it, but it's even better than the return of Chairman Michael to blogoramaville.

makes me think I wasn't so far off when I jokingly outed you as Silko over at The Chairman's old digs!

Chris Clarke said...

which raises the question for me, "what's the converse of Afro-Orientalism?"

Tasmanio-Aleutism.

The Constructivist said...

It's got a ring to it!

bill benzon said...

So, TC, where are you going with this Afro-Japanese transnational stuff? Or are you just going with the flow? I know you're into Hawthorne, which is neither here nor there to me. And I know that you have intimate near-and-dear reasons to be interested in Japanese culture. Still . . .

I've got a deep interest in African American culture via music. This, of course, is quite common. Beyond the common, I'm a very good musician and a sophisticated intellectual. Put those together and I take the Africa in America as a paradigm case of cultural cross-breeding.

And then I became interested in anime. But, you know, back when I was a kid reading comics, there were judo ads next to the Charles Atlas body-building ads. (Not to mentiona Dave Brubeck's Japanese thing.) And when the martial arts thing made it to TV, well that was the counter-culture and all, right there. Sure, kung-fu was Chinese, not Japanese, but . . . Not to mention that Japanese print I inhertied from my mother, who got it from her brother who was in the Phillipines at the end of WWII. Superficial orientalism is and has been all around for decades and decades.

And then, as I discovered, I discovered anime. Which means, among other things, those great Miyazki movies set in Europe and all those big-eyed characters with pink and blue and yellow and green hair who don't look particularly Japanese, nor French, no Tahitian, nor Ghanian.

I mean, cultural mixing, is utterly common and utterly strange.

The Constructivist said...

I'm with you, Bill--happens all the time but can result in some "uncanny" combos. When I started the race and Hawthorne project in the early '90s, I thought of race mostly in terms of black and white and was most interested in using work from Black Studies and Critical Race Theory to illuminate Hawthorne's works and times. But I also was doing research and publishing on Afro-Caribbean writers and fleshing out my understanding of the U.S.'s multiethnicity/multiculturalism and of debates between marxists and the postcolonial studies people I was reading in the 1990s throughout the decade. By the time I got my first job, I was ready to branch out in new directions in my teaching, and had the opportunity to teach world lit, colonial American lit, an intro to race and ethnicity course, and many American Studies courses--all of which were as much to educate me as my students. I'd go on, but I've been planning to do this kind of intellectual autobiography thing since I started CitizenSE--and this Saturday is as good a time as any to start it....