The aesthetics of protest in two
By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.
The Third World, spanning as it does both the non-aligned nations in Africa and Asia and the underdeveloped countries of the world, is in fact not so much a place with a distinctive geography as a particular state of consciousness, the social consciousness of that sector of the body politic reeling under the brunt of various forms of oppression and exploitation by another sector that arrogates to itself the power to exercise dominion over the less fortunate underdogs.
The subcultures in the United States are characteristically Third World in their outlook and aspirations. Already, the Negro ferment in America has been penetrated by Afro-Cuban influence. Indeed, it is from the Black Power movement that other c.p.’s and ethnic groups in America, notably the Asian-Americans, derive their inspiration and rallying symbol in the on-going struggle against racism.
It is not difficult to know that the whole premise of Western civilization rests upon the myth of the white man’s superiority, a white-created anomaly that emboldened the top dogs to subject the American Negro to more than three centuries of chattel slavery and reduced the latter to the level of the beast of burden. The same racial prejudice that so ruthlessly lacerates the black man in the flesh and in spirit likewise spares no one tinted with other shades of color in his skin pigmentation, the brown man not excluded.
One can therefore see that the compulsive violence of the Negro stems from an outraged humanity asserting its own danger potential. It is the rage of man driven against the wall and at last found the strength to break out and smash the prison that for so long has held him in chains. The mood of violent radicalism in America which reached climactic pitch in race riots threatening to tear apart the fabric of the so-called Great Society has inevitably filtered out and has been caught on by other cultural minorities in a sort of entrainment or sympathetic infection.
Violence has become for the Negro a sort of alchemical force which is thought to bring into resolution the anomalous disunity, the yawning contradiction between what the white man professes and what he does, between his words and deeds, between the empty rhetoric and hard facts. For while the white man espouses liberty and builds imposing monuments to it and inscribes it on parchments or bronze, he practices barbarous acts of cruelty which gives the lie to his avowals. A couplet from Some Changes by Jane Jordan, a modern Black poetess, aptly expresses this unmitigated notoriety: “George Washington he think he big/he trade my father for a pig.” It escapes understanding why the white man can talk of love and at the same time kill his brother man. Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth (Penguin Books, 1967) exhorts his fellow Negroes, thus: “Leave this Europe (or America) where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them….”
The gory violence, the fiery anger with which Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas dismembers the murdered white woman was meant to jolt the white man back to his senses, since it all represents by extension the dismembering by the black man of the shibboleths of submission and passivity thrust upon him by a social arrangement not of his own making. The twisted spirit of Bigger Thomas reflects the nadir of degradation to which he has been relegated in the hands of the white oppressors.
These accents of wrath against the callousness and dire cruelty of a closed society reverberates even through the works of many modern black writers. At one time LeRoi Jones has pictured America as one vast inferno in which the devil is a white man with the Negroes as his victims. He describes his life as a kind of Dantesque descent into such hell in which the obscene mess and the filth are thrown at the face of the intended white oppressor to protest his intolerable condition. At another, he lashes virulently at the white enemy in the strongest terms and in no-nonsense pursuit of rage in “Black Dada Nihilismus”: “Poems are bullshit unless they are/teeth or trees or lemons piled/on a step. Or black ladies dying/of men leaving nickel hearts/beating them down. Fuck poems/and they are useful…/…We want poems like fists beating niggers out of Jocks/or dagger poems in the slimy bellies/of the owner-Jews….”
The chorus of fury is joined by other voices fraught with revolutionary fervor. Mae Jackson virtually makes a clarion call to arms in the lines: “the time has come/to kill/white women and children/for Emmitt Till/and the children of Birmingham.” Don L. Lee re-echoes Le Roi Jones as he writes: “I ain’t seen no stanzas brake/a honkies’ head…/& until my similes can protect me/from a night stick/i guess i’ll keep my razor/& buy me some more bullets.”
In these tirades against tyranny and internal colonialism, the black poets who have finally found their voices are often garrulous yet undaunted. These poets have come to see their role not only in interpreting their need but in judging what for them is human or humane. In poetry they see a powerful weapon in furthering the ends of revolution, in totally dismantling the cultural patterns or socio-political structures which only serve the selfish interests of the power-hungry dominant race. Thus, in their hands literature becomes the handmaiden of praxis, of confrontation with the most central problem facing society, i.e., the howling human misery, the poverty, the sufferings borne by the common, underprivileged man to make secure the pleasure and convenience of the ruling majority.
And because of the black writer’s sense of mission outside himself, of commitment to his cause, the literary forms by which the liberal humanists or aesthetes express themselves fail to gain his adherence. The Third World crusaders for freedom who wield the pen take liberties with the accepted canons of literary art and come up with their own to depict with great emotional intensity what man has done to man. Art, then, in their view, must give birth to the tidal wave of change and wash away the status quo and its abominations, and this it can achieve only by stressing the priority of its content over its form.
“The question for the black critic today,” says Addison Gayle Jr. in Black Aesthetics (Doubleday & Company, 1972), “is not how beautiful is a melody, a play, a poem, or a novel, but how much more meaningful has the poem, melody, play, or novel made the life of a single black man?” In other words, a critical theory that does not contribute to the betterment of black people, or improve the brutalized existence of the cultural minorities for that matter, has neither meaning nor relevance whatsoever. Roy Kanenga, in his “Black Cultural Nationalism,” puts it more succinctly: “Black art…must respond positively to the reality of the revolution. It must become and remain a part of revolutionary machinery that moves us to change quickly and creatively. Black art must expose the enemy, praise the people and support the revolution.” This statement on black aesthetics echoes and bears in no uncertain terms the influence of Marxist-Leninist critical methodology that inveighs against bourgeois formalism as insipid if not downright spurious.
At any rate, any critical theory is a convention, a man-made body of principles informing a given piece of literature. There is thus nothing sacrosanct about a literary precept that it should be adhered to even if it has no relevance to the particular temper of the time and experiences in which a writer finds himself. The predominant or prevailing critical assumptions that writers are often expected to follow (like for instance formalism) are those essentially fashioned in the West by the Anglo-Saxon bourgeoisie. It therefore obviously devolves upon the writer whose sensibilities are dulled if not totally denigrated by the constraints of a theory of literature steeped in bourgeois and middle class values to hammer out and embrace one that enables him to do justice to and freely give expression to the texture of experience which a man in his circumstances goes through.
Socialist realism in its broad sweep rather than in its narrowly utilitarian application as the official Soviet aesthetic doctrine reflects the dialectical movement of the social process, the contradictions spawned by the internal forces of class conflict. In its view, literary art more than merely portrays the manifold complexities of life. It must also be, as Zhadanov put it, “instrumental in the ideological remolding of the toiling people in the spirit of socialism.” In other words, art, unlike religion, is no opiate to deaden the consciousness of the masses to the harsh realities of their socio-political predicament but instead confronts them with the spectacle of themselves trapped in a world which they must wrest back for themselves from the clutches of the powers that be. With their eyes at last opened by the writer’s superior light, they now ought to realize that for them, with the ineffectual outcome of such campaigns like bi-racial civil rights movement, etc., there is no alternative, no substitute for revolt.
The black writers’ angry rhetoric, though admittedly incendiary at some points, has in no small measure spurred the Asian-Americans into new heights of ethnic awareness. For the black man’s problems are no less those of the yellow man’s also, even if Yellow or Brown Power may not be as explosive as the black catchword. Asian-Americans of the pre-war and postwar generations found a common cause with the blacks although the former express themselves in more restrained accents in decrying racial injustice. Thus, in both temper and principle, these two American subcultures are of the Third World movement which is ever unrelenting in their demand for justice and freedom.
In more sophisticated lines, most of the Asian-American poets, like the Chinese or Japanese, explore the cultural conflicts they contend against, the bizarre feeling of living under a double identity and, as a way out, reaffirm their ancestral roots or their ethnic heritage thereby exploding the myth of the melting pot as nothing short of phoney nonsense. The strident note of militant defiance is somewhat toned down in their language presumably because racism in some quarters of contemporary America must have taken on more subtle forms and make it less brutal to put up with. Yet, however deft the sugar-coating is, the bitter pill of racial discrimination and injustice remains. And though discriminatory legislations by the U.S. government such as the anti-Oriental acts of exclusion were relaxed if not totally repealed in later times, prejudice, that green-eyed monster, cannot be legislated away.
Historical accounts reveal, for instance, that in California and Washington, between the 1920’s and 1930’s, incidents of raw violence directed against Orientals particularly the Pinoys were on the rise. It fell into the lot of a Filipino writer like Carlos Bulosan to chronicle this ignominious page in the annals of American cannibalism. Carey Williams, in penning the introduction to Bulosan’s autobiographical novel, says: “Filipinos were victimized by the same anti-Oriental stereotype….As immigrants they encountered a previously erected wall of discrimination….” In the same vein, Bulosan was quoted by H. Brett Melendy in Racism in America (1972) thus: “The terrible truth in America shatters the Filipinos’ dream of fraternity. I was completely disillusioned when I came to know this American attitude…the horrible impact of white chauvinism.” For Bulosan, like so many of his immigrant brothers, was not given the treatment proper to a human being. He was even, if one is to give credence to his accounts in America Is in the Heart (University of Washington, 1973), subjected to indignities, heartless exploitation as a laborer, and brutalities. At one time, after a most barbarous beating, the white bully still not contented, hurled obscenities at him and called him a brown monkey, for that is what he is in the former’s eyes. In fact, to try to live like a man or assert one’s own humanity in the country of the white man is already to be guilty of a crime—the crime of daring to be human. One can take Bulosan’s word for it. Some of the details of Bulosan’s narrative may not have been literally true or verifiable, but the distilled essence of his hurt gets through.
In thus exposing in his writings the enemy in his true light and in taking the side of the small, working man, Bulosan achieved a realism that has close affinities with the black populist aesthetics which stresses, among other things, the people as the proper source from which art draws its substance and sustenance; and therefore, it is at their service that art must be legitimately put. Bulosan’s historic sense is evident in his works and his feeling for the inexorable forces of the social dialectical process puts his writings in the tradition of socialist realism in its more extended sense, that is, minus the thick-headed parochialism of an official dogma. In his own words” “What impelled me to write? The answer is: my grand dream of equality among men and freedom for all. To give a literate voice to the voiceless…Filipinos in the United States, Hawaii, the desires and aspirations of the whole Filipino people in the Philippines and abroad in terms relevant to contemporary history.”
Another notable Filipino writer was to assume, and resume after Bulosan, the task of recording the Filipino experience in America. Unlike his precursor, he came not as a laborer but a government scholar, and under better circumstances to boot—the new immigration laws being generous to Filipinos and the lifting or modification of discriminatory legislations against the Pinoy in the wake of Bataan and Corregidor. Bienvenido N. Santos was thus spared the physical violence inflicted upon Carlos Bulosan who can only respond with the most natural human reaction of anger. But Santos was not spared the hurt which, though not springing from bodily pain, proves even more excruciating than the merely physical kind. It is the hurt of deracination, of the blasting of illusions about America as a dreamland of joy, of milk and honey, into an arid land as it were partitioned by walls upon walls of discrimination. And while Santos’s vision of humanity is not governed by the inexorability of dialectical materialism as Bulosan’s, he penetrates deeply into the dark regions of the heart—the actual hidden source of the outwardly visible scheme of dehumanization in society.
Santos’ writings, though not consciously socialist in concerns, nevertheless capture in depth the problems of racial conflicts, and this, if nothing else, places him on a level with the Third World humanists. He tells of the tragedy of the broken man, of the Filipino trapped in racial relations that often wind up in unhappiness, in insanity or death. There is, for instance, the story of a Pinoy otherwise happily married with an American wife. But the neighbors, his wife’s American friends, drive her to insanity by talking down to her for giving birth to what they derisively called as monkey children. She drowns the kids in a fit of lunacy. There is, too, the Filipino husband who feels excruciatingly helpless on seeing his American wife disowned by her family for the "crime" of marrying him. But that is not all. There is Delfin who, mystified by an American widow’s white complexion, married her. She proves to be a whore and she would shut him out as she consummates sex with one strange man after another. Afterwards, she lets him in. No words said. No explanations.
In an editorial on Santos, I said in the Nueva Caceres Review (March 1981) apropos the last story: “Is this perhaps a tragic fable of the Filipino [wayfarer] who, dazzled by the romantic vision of America as a land of promise, would pay any price for it? America even at the expense of pride, integrity, honor?” Whatever America stands for the Filipino immigrant, the Filipino remains what he has always been to America—an outsider. He is, in the words of Mark Twain, the “person who sits in darkness” even if he actually sits right on its doorstep. The rub of it all is that even right back in his own country, he continues to be victimized by American neocolonialism on the pretext of “extending to him the blessings of civilization.”
With this cursory glance at the literature and major literary figures of two cultural minorities in the United States, it becomes increasingly clear that in terms of content, committed literature depicts the central contradiction of society so that form merely complements the content. Without the confrontation afforded by this kind of literature, there is reason to doubt if freedom could be possible at all. It follows that without the precondition of freedom, no change in the quality of life of the common people could ever take place.
Literary theory should thus carry forward the process of human history by serving as a factor in generating the forces that will change traditional social structures on the revolutionary level. This critical concept, in its modified or full implications, has gained the acceptance, consciously or unconsciously, of most American ethnic writers whom we have thus far considered. And to what extent they have succeeded, armed as they are with the ideals of a new humanism, in shaking the foundations of the existing value system of the socio-political body remains an open question. But to judge from the wave of ferment sweeping through the Third World, it is safe to guess that they are not way behind in carrying forward their cause. For, they cannot afford to fail in their campaign for survival. Frantz Fanon, near the end of his book, which has come to be regarded as the manifesto of the Third World, states the messianic role the oppressed people is to play in the destiny of mankind:
It is a question of the third World starting a new history of Man, a history which will have regard to the sometimes prodigious theses which Europe has put forward, but which will also not forget Europe’s crimes, of which the most horrible was committed in the heart of man, and consisted of the pathological tearing apart of his unity. And in the framework of the collectivity there were differentiations, the stratifications, and the bloodthirsty tensions fed by classes; and finally, on the immense scale of humanity, there were racial hatreds, slavery, exploitation and above all the bloodless genocide which consisted in the setting aside of 15 thousand millions of men.
The committed writers in the American subcultures, whether black, yellow, brown, or shades of gray, on the evidence of the literary temper they have shown in the works here considered, have not paid lip service to that grand vision.