Zombification (AMS179)

Driving home today from class I thought about the fact that 1) here we are in the middle of Black History Month (can somebody tell me why BHM is in February, the shortest month of the year?) having just completed a barnstorming tour of blackface minstrelsy and 2) we’ve begun a unit on zombies while Haiti, whose folk legends gave birth to that odd figure, lies in ruins.

Lest we labor under the delusion that “the West” has promptly responded with a purely disinterested, open heart to the plight of Haitians as they face the on-coming rainy season in a country with very little remaining infrastructure, consider that the first wave of aid to arrive there came in the form of US Marines carrying automatic weapons. Consider also that for practitioners of  “disaster capitalism,” as Naomi Klein has termed it, catastrophes such as the recent earthquake inevitably lead to massive profits. Even further, institutions of global finance such as the World Bank and the IMF which are controlled by “the West” are in large measure responsible for Haiti’s status as the poorest nation in the hemisphere by means of “structural adjustment,” debt mechanisms and economic coercion. Finally, even as Bill Clinton, UN-appointed “special envoy” to Haiti tours selected locales under a hailstorm of flashbulbs many Haitians must be recalling his tacit support of a coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide. From Jeremy Scahill:

In September 1991, the US backed the violent overthrow of the government of Haiti’s democratically-elected leftist priest President Jean Bertrand Aristide after he was in power less than a year. Aristide had defeated a US-backed candidate in the 1990 Haitian presidential election. The military coup leaders and their paramilitary gangs of CIA-backed murderous thugs, including the notorious FRAPH paramilitary units, were known for hacking the limbs off of Aristide supporters (and others) along with an unending slew of other horrifying crimes.

When Clinton came to power, he played a vicious game with Haiti that allowed the coup regime to continue rampaging Haiti and further destabilized the country. What’s more, in the 1992 election campaign, Bill Clinton campaigned on a pledge to reverse what he called then-President George HW Bush’s “cruel policy” of holding Haitian refugees at Guantanamo with no legal rights in US courts. Upon his election, however, Clinton reversed his position and sided with the Bush administration in denying the Haitians legal rights. the Haitians were held in atrocious conditions and the new Democratic president was sued by the Center for Constitutional Rights…. [read all of it here]

This outburst is prompted by the realization that as we continue to discuss the zombie in class, in the back of our minds there ought to be lurking the recognition that this artifact of US Pop is yet another cultural appropriation– we might even say expropriation– a “borrowing” of dubious character, one that all too easily plays into the exoticizing logic of portraying the USA’s “Others” as the “Others” of modernity itself, as versions of Eugene O’Neill’s Congo Witchdoctor.

At the same time (and here’s where things twist awry) that borrowing is ultimately productive– not innocent, mind you, but productive– of new cultural possibilities. Pried loose from its original context and imported to Hollywood, thrust into the popular unconscious of American culture, the zombie becomes a symbol with multiple valences.

It’s been a long day and my narratorial abilities are waning so let me just raise a few additional issues in no particular order:

1. As I said in class, in the post-bellum era increasing numbers of African American entertainers joined the minstrel stage. Actors such as Bert Williams and Billy Kersands used blackface conventions as the basis for their own performances. Herein lies the power of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled: after the Civil War the complexion under that burnt cork was usually “black.” What are we to do with this information? Rather than condemn thousands upon thousands of African American performers as dupes or sell-outs, we might consider that the minstrel show– as grotesque as it might be, particularly to our own sensibilities– provided a venue, an opportunity for Black men in a White Supremacist nation to make a living and travel.

2. Regarding Primitivism: I wanted to say in class that primitivism was an aesthetic concern for both Black and White artists, particularly in the 1920s. Certainly Claude McKay and others associated with the Harlem Renaissance were drawn to the idea of the primitive, as were Picasso and O’Neill. It’s important to understand that the relationship of “first world” artists and writers to the primitive was not simply exploitative. Many early 20th century culture workers found a vitality and energy in the trope of the primitive which their own immediate social surroundings seemed to lack.

3. Since the early modern period (circa 1490s) race and racial difference have been construed as based on visible traits such as skin color, hair texture and facial structure. Racialist and racist thinking has identified physical appearance with some kind of metaphysical essence. When explicitly raced figures come onstage that relationship between appearance and essence is simultaneously emphasized and thrown into doubt. Stereotypes and racial conventions are radically opened to question– they “come into play.” In Shakespeare’s Othello, Elizabethan commonplaces about race and character are subverted. Antebellum burlesques such as Otello, as Lott argues, traffic in powerful ambiguities: the minstrel show becomes a site for the worst kinds of racist representation and, at times, a scene for social criticism, of working through the themes that characterize racial discourse itself.  In one sense race onstage is a double performance because race is already embodied and performed.

4. If you’d like to learn more about Haiti in relation to US culture, one source is Bob Corbett’s Haiti Page.