Over one hundred years ago, James Baldwin recounted in The Fire Next Time a moment in a bar where he and his friend were carded because the bartender could never tell whether Black males were men or boys. After the white customers sat watching, saying nothing, one approached Baldwin and his friend, wanting to converse with them. They informed the man that they had nothing to say to him now, since he had been silent during their fight with the bartender. The man’s feelings are visibly hurt, and Baldwin’s friend informs the man that their fight had been his, too. The man retorts, “I lost my conscience a long time ago.”
This phrase—wrapped at once in sadness, shame, and defensiveness—was evidence of a wider charge Baldwin brought against his white countrymen, wherein he mourned that a civilization is not destroyed by the wicked but by the “spineless.” Over a century later, Baldwin’s prophesy echoes in Jess Row’s probing, and at times dizzying, White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination (Graywolf Press).
Owing to the work of Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, Row turns his attention to an oft-neglected—thus, protected—form of writing, that of the white writer engaged in or, too often, disengaged from, the reality of race and racism within fiction. For Row, fiction includes both the literal meaning and the one “in which our collective life is a series of overlapping fictions, fantasies, dream states.” Whether or not white writing directly addresses race and racism, then, Row contends that “stories not only deny but undeny, tell but untell themselves.”
What does it mean, for instance, that much of American nature writing, from Thoreau to Dillard, has treated the white subject as existing apart from society, detached in a way from the realities of a home, so that they may grow in isolation, uninhibited by history and context? Row reads in this desire for open spaces an opportunity to uphold rootlessness as an ideal, an emptied space and self as preferred states of being, “a resistance to the claims of any kind of history or consciousness of the past.” This form of white flight extends beyond nature writing, as white writers often do not want to be read as racialized subjects but as individuals, in a way that writers of color are never able to.
“Not wanting to be counted, or accountable” is evident throughout white fictions, from the obvious (white writers avoiding the topic of race altogether) to the more opaque. In one pressing chapter, for instance, Row argues that minimalism has long been revered as a covenant of white writing because it projects a kind of objectivity onto its subject matter, whereas sentimentality is read as lesser-than, “a rejection of the implied threat of queerness” that also proves the reluctance to have non-white, non-male writers become “central, default, defining models for the literature of the future.” Because white American writers are still not being taught to take our bodies into account, Row warns, we are practicing a form of “imaginative violence,” relinquishing “the possibility of self-knowledge” in pursuit of the same sad myths.
Sadness is a concept that Row returns to throughout White Flights. As with the man approaching Baldwin and his friend in the bar, white Americans—exemplified in Wes Anderson, David Foster Wallace, and even emo bands—express a form of “white blues,” a sadness attached to no object. Better than cynicism, which is only “white melancholy, both bland and inert, detached, literally self-effacing,” and made evident through white hipster culture, white blues hold a different possibility for Row if only white writers learn “to turn the affect of white sadness into a form with an object, from sadness to sadness about.” This could be “imaginative work” that is not “satisfying, but may be productively unsatisfying.”
Although Row’s examination of sadness contains several revelatory points, more engagement is necessary as to the question of sadness intermingling with the concepts of shame and white guilt. The latter, Row states elsewhere, is “destructive,” one form of white flight that turns “longings for justice and reconciliation into something foreshortened and already foreclosed.” That said, Row also writes, “I’m convinced that struggling with feelings of shame, and the possibility of humiliation, is psychologically, politically, artistically meaningful.”
Shame and guilt are concepts oft-confused and perhaps ill-fated in conversations concerning race (white guilt is often read as unhelpful, a perpetuation of liberal racism, whereas I have sat in antiracist trainings where the facilitator argued that guilt makes us act while shame paralyzes us). Row argues that discussing whiteness should not be polite, which is true, but it must also be precise.
Where Row elaborately teases out many of the threads weaved in White Flights, the recurring notion of sadness needs to be situated within firmer explorations of shame and guilt as two seemingly contradictory poles. Otherwise, this sadness may need to be altogether excised from the white imagination as a static place where nothing much occurs. To this point, Row’s book could be brought into conversation with another Graywolf release from this year, Claudia Rankine’s The White Card.
In the play, several well-to-do white liberals invest in art that explores Black suffering and death. Through this financial and emotional investment, they are able to express a “sadness about” racism that loops them back to their own self-conceptions of goodness. Describing a particular piece they purchased representing Michael Brown’s death, one of the white characters, Virginia, comments to Charlotte, the Black artist they have invited to dinner, “I have to tell you, I felt sick.” Virginia’s sick feeling, tinged with pride in her own white guilt (or is it shame?), reveals the uncritical lens through which sadness mitigates the white psyche’s own feeling of culpability in racism, not only minimizing the pain but becoming expectant of forgiveness, even gratitude, from the people of color who have just been confessed to.
For her part, Charlotte is stunned by the purchase of the piece, and says under her breath (Rankine’s stage directions hinting at the hopelessness of saying it louder), “We’re not going to get anywhere with this kind of… this kind of American sentimentality.” Row’s belief in sadness as a productive tool to writing about race and racism does not embrace this “American sentimentality,” as he wants to move “away from melancholy and toward actual mourning,” but the occasional lack of clarity as to what this entails—and, in particular, where it leads—lends itself to dangerous interpretations, potentially as “destructive” as he finds white guilt to be.
Both Rankine and Row are interested in making visible conversations that have for too long been rendered invisible, but in the case of sadness, as Row notes at other turns, it reveals more in what it does not say: white wishful thinking for forgiveness, absolution, and appreciation rather than work toward justice, accountability, and a necessary, nagging lack of resolution.
To this end, Rankine’s dramatized staging of an encounter between white liberal values and their shortcomings may succeed where Row’s academic lingo sometimes falters. Drawing on Albert Murray, Row argues that the examination of race and racism in fiction is serious work but should also include an element of play—not what is present? But what is possible? imaginable? From my reading, Row takes his own advice twice: at the end of his essay on interracial relationships, where he reimagines the undefined details of his great-great-uncle’s life through a fictive romance, and throughout the final essay, where he breaks his train of thought to offer fragmented, conflicting reflections. These sections are the most satisfying moments in White Flights because they find Row losing the safe lens of intellectualism in order to risk failure, a key function of fiction.
“What kinds of feelings am I not feeling?” Virginia says earlier in The White Card, when Charlotte says she wants viewers of her art to experience “what it means to live precariously.” Virginia’s question, which comes from a place of feeling accused, is already answered in Charlotte’s first statement. Virginia is stuck, however, unable to see what is not apparently visible in her own question. Like the man who told Baldwin he lost his conscience “a long time ago,” Virginia is trapped in a binary construction of good and evil. In believing her conscience already pure, she loses sight of it as a constant state of unrest, a place where sadness, guilt, and shame might all be unhelpful, akin—somehow—to spinelessness.
To live precariously—without security, vulnerable to collapse—is the feeling white Americans need to mine, and which Row situates as the domain of fiction throughout White Flights. In his own words, this book “could be a fraying, a slight loosening, at most,” to the thread of whiteness. If enough writers try to fray this thread, let’s see what else might break.