Through the Eyes of Another: Black and Visible

How many ways to say—and how many voices to call—systemic racism; to say unyielding white supremacy; to say invisibility that goes unremarked; to say denial of personhood? I am a white woman. I’ve never said that before. It startled me. I’ve never had to speak on my own behalf, on systemic racism, on invisibility—although, as a woman, there has been some struggle—or on my basic inherent rights as a citizen.

But Hilton Als has. Asked to respond, for a book, on photographs of hanged Black people, a lynching, he wrote, “I looked at these pictures and what I saw in them, in addition to the obvious, was the way in which I’m regarded by any number of people: as a nigger. And it is as one that I felt my neck snap and my heart break, while looking at these pictures,” and further, in his essay “GWTW” from White Girls, “Of course, one big difference between the people documented in these pictures and me is that I am not dead, have not been lynched or scalded or burned or whipped or stoned. But I have been looked at, watched, and seen the harm in people’s eyes—fear that can lead to becoming a dead nigger, like those seen here. And it’s those photographs that have made me understand, finally, what the word nigger means, and why people have used it, and the way I use it here, now: as a metaphorical lynching before the real one” (White Girls, McSweeney’s, 2014).

Dionne Brand, resisting, pulling against invisibility with her writing, said in the interview in this issue, “What I’ve tried to write is not the single subject working, usually, ‘his’ way in the world, but the multiple subject allowing for multiple narrative strategies, as well as narrative trajectories. But again, it is not a question of visibility. Because the question then is, visible to whom? Black people have been, are and will continue to be visible to themselves/ourselves, to me” (Border Crossings 39, no. 3, 2020).

“Variously named Harriot, Philba, Sara, Joanna, Rachel, Linda and Sally, she is found everywhere in the Atlantic world. The barracoon, the hollow of a slave ship, the pest-house, the brothel, the cage, the surgeon’s laboratory, the prison, the cane field, the kitchen, the master’s bedroom—turn out to be exactly the same place and in all of them she is called Venus.” This is Saidiya Hartman writing against amnesiac history in what she calls the “violence of the archive.” And through the double bind of Du Bois’s double consciousness, which comes up persistently, pervasively, she writes, “straining against the limits of the archive to write a cultural history of the captive, and, at the same time, enacting the impossibility of representing the lives of the captives precisely through the process of narration” (“Venus in Two Acts,” Saidiya Hartman, Small Axe 26, Volume 12, Number 2). Doing this to fill in the universe-scaled lacunae of deliberate omission and erasure.

Claudia Rankine’s restrained keening: “an overflow of compromises, deaths, and tempers specific to a profile woke to and gone to sleep to each day.” She is writing in Citizen, An American Lyric, in memory of Mark Duggan, shot dead by police in the course of the Hackney riots in the UK in 2011. She is a guest, with others, in an elegant house in London, where she encounters a novelist whose face she describes as being like the English sky—shifting, clouding, clearing. He asks her if she will write about Mark Duggan, the assumption being that riots of this kind are more familiar to an American, and she responds, asking why doesn’t he? She senses his irritation and she queries herself, and us as readers, “How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?” Connecting on a human level, wanting there to be a connecting understanding, she writes about her fellow guest in the lovely house in London, “And though in this man’s body, the man made of the English sky, grief exists for Duggan as a black man gunned down, there is not the urgency brought on by an overflow of compromises, deaths, and tempers specific to a profile woke to and gone to sleep to each day.”

The setting sun finds one of the windows on a skyscraper angled just so and flashes like a jet from the fingertips of a superhero in flight, and hits me in the eye. The sun, as it slides down the sky, is behind me. I can’t see it. I couldn’t see it directly anyway even if I were facing it. I’m seeing it through what I know of its descent and I’m seeing its effect across two streets and an alley when it turns liquid on the building’s window. Seeing through the agency or, just as correctly, the limitations of being second hand/once removed, filtered by another dense and tangled field of criteria, was explained in the late 19th century by the American sociologist WEB Du Bois as double consciousness, an awareness of self through the eyes of another. To be realized first or only by the perception and assessment of someone else would bring about, I think, a measurable, even if barely measurable, gap in actualization. The time it takes to read and absorb your reflection in the mirror of someone else’s glass. If the perceiver isn’t there, has the perceived failed to present themself? Think of the debilitating void this suggests: a self awaiting its coming into being. Take that back, grab it back with both hands.

Hilton Als (who always sees himself as the twin of another) does a double turn, writing in White Girls, “I am always attracted to people who are not myself but are.” Nimble, brilliant and always backing away beyond the reach of the outstretched arms that he longs to have seize him. Him, where? Deflection, denial, reduction—the twin divided by two. The schooled abnegation of the self. Hilton Als’s beloved SL, in the long essay “Tristes Tropiques” from White Girls, tells Als, “Twinship is the archetype for closeness; it is also the archetype for difference: in one’s other half, one sees both who one is and who one isn’t.” And what remains?

This dense and gorgeous essay—Als always telling himself through telling others—is itself the containing vessel for many stories, one being the introduction of Marie, his first love—a queer Black man loving white girls—Marie a constructed white girl assembled from the elements of her Puerto Rican mother, her Jewish father and her own invention, his introducing Marie to his second first love, Vincent, a would-be chorus player with longings of his own. It’s the story of how Als gave her away in retreat from his own desires, how he was the director of the play standing in the dimmed light of the orchestra, looking up at the illuminated stage and seeing one first love and the second first love embrace each other as he had wished to do in their stead, first one, then the other.

Seeing Marie walking on the street where she lived or seeing her in his mind’s eye, he asks, “Did I love her or want to be her? Is there a difference?” As they say: putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, getting inside someone else’s skin. But for Als it’s not a question of empathy, which his capacious heart does extend; it’s the white world’s wicked obliteration by invisibility, the not-seeing denial of personhood. I can’t say it better, or even differently than Als does, about Marie and this first love. “And then the memory of being close to Marie’s body. I wanted her more than anything; her whiteness, more accurately, her misleading whiteness—the blonde mistaken for a gringo by Latin men; the Jewish girl mistaken for a shiksa by Jewish men; a white girl mistaken for a white girl in my coloured world—felt not unlike myself and not like myself all at the same time.” Both of them imposters of a sort, surviving. Als, seeing himself by way of deferral and displacement, peeling back one distancing, complex layer after another, withholding from himself what he most desired. Thinking about Marie, he wrote, “She knew everything about me, including the fact that I would not impose on another body what I felt about my own body…. But my twin during my Marie time was different. His name was Vincent and he was beautiful.” Als knew him from high school, a blond dazzler with aspirations to be in the theatre. Maybe not in a starring role but at least in the chorus, like that chorus boy with whom he, in turn, was in ill-fated love. And so it goes—slipping, slip-sliding away. With his kind heart Als introduces Vincent to Marie, to make it better. “Here was Marie, here was my self, and here was our love which I could not subject her to.” Vincent and Marie are salve to each other’s disappointment, and one day, on the fire escape outside their school, they enact West Side Story, and Hilton Als is their lone audience, watching, noting. “And it seemed to me it was the least I could do to myself.”

Even at the outset of his career Michael Jackson perceived that stardom would afford him what Als identifies in his essay “Michael” as a “nonfractured mirroring,” the goal Jackson and most performers pursued, a clear view of the whole self looking back, something Als described in “Tristes Tropiques” as being beyond achieving. But not a stable or static state. As Jackson’s career developed, and in his songwriting and performances, his own desires were voiced through miming others and his transformation became more pronounced. Als wrote, “Michael Jackson was most himself when he was someone other than himself.” He was referred to by queer Black men as “she” and then as a “white woman,” about which Als notes here, again, as a desire caught up in its own conundrum, being labelled something you were not or ever could be—again the wrong desire wrongly thwarted. Then Jackson’s transformation became his career, red lips, white skin, visibly moving away from being identified as Black, a limbo in which his sexuality did the same. Where was Michael? He, too, seeking to make a self visible.

“You and Whose Army?” is another essay in White Girls, here the autobiographical narrative of a Black woman—Als writing an actress who has a decent career doing voice-over for porn films and videos and who, as a serious actress, performs her roles with credibly sensitive interpretations and who also has a solid knowledge of literature. A long-time reader. Als’s narrative voice is slant and ironic; she has seen it all and has maintained her criticality throughout, asserting, “My freedom comes when I have another name, another voice.” One writer from the many she has read is irritating beyond overlooking. Virginia Woolf, whose photographs everyone would have seen, “photographs of that writer dressed in linen and hats, that long face a kind of weeping willow of thought,” aka, in the actress’s personal notes, Suicide Bitch. The narrator assaults Woolf’s whining about her invisibility, which, as it applied to Woolf and her frequent, introspective long walks in the country, seems instead a desirable, privileged kind of freedom. For the actress/narrator, invisibility means something else. “Listen,” and Bitch is implied, “my job depends on my physical invisibility but never my absence.” And whose autobiographical telling is this? Who is present and seen, who is overlooked?

Displacement, not having a place, not entirely certain of the fully figured person who would occupy a place—disengagement, then, if that’s how things stand—pulling back, withdrawing, ducking the assault, skirting the blow. The voice-over actress thinks back over her career and says, “My voice is equal to what you see. For some, what’s heard during fucking is more powerful than watching the act itself…. As my voice earned some demand, I didn’t have to do so much incidental stuff. But in a sense, doing Foley for stroke flicks is the greater challenge, since the sound makes the surreality richer. The films you hear me in are about people pulling out at the deepest moment of connection. I define art as the sound of love. It’s also the sound of me loving and being abandoned by Richard.” (Richard Pryor, is my guess.) White Girls is replete with pull backs, with bruised distancing, with endless displacements—a queer Black man writing a narrative in the voice of a Black woman who is only heard and never seen, who knows about withdrawals, certainly as a professional witness of same, in the enactment of the fiction of manufactured sex.

About Richard Pryor and his whole story in “A Pryor Love,” also in this collection, asking of history, “But will they take into account the rest of his story: that American life, full of contradictions; the life of a comedian who had an excess of both empathy and disdain for his audience, who exhausted himself in his search for love, who was a confusion of female and male, coloured and white, and who acted out this internal drama onstage for our entertainment.” To Virginia Woolf Als says, “I lived, this is what happened, all of life is imagined and made into art so that I can bear it.”❚