Reading Heather Neff’s Haarlem and Heidi Rodewald Stew’s Passing Strange

 

Standing in the central square of the Bijlmermeer looking up at the statue of Anton de Kom as people milled around me, walking to and fro, I blended into the background as a young Black man in one of the most diverse areas of the city. My American nationality was not visible until I spoke, the difference between my route and the route of the migrants was not apparent until I uttered in American English and then was the trajectory and capital of my journey exposed to the listener. As I realized at the Schiphol airport, people arrived in Amsterdam from all over the world for a multitude of reasons, some on journeys towards business, or education, towards respite, even love, however fleeting that love might be. As Anaïs Nin, a Spanish-Cuban American writer raised in France, has poignantly expressed,

“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.” Sometimes, those lives and souls that we travel in search of are our own, and that search for the self is often the most difficult for the self is evasive and amorphous. Sometimes, we travel in search of the lives and souls of others, as we wander in search of a connection, skin upon skin, eyes fixated on other eyes, or as Emmanuel Lévinas would say “face-to-face”, in search of a moment, in which we abandon our concerns and complexes and fears and worries, forget that “the world waited outside, [and that] trouble stretched above us”[1] as we search for a particle of quiet that is somehow disconnected from the overflowing streams of capital and information and gratuitous violence that saturates our everyday lives. We travel, it can be said, to escape the burden of capitalism as that ‘we’ shifts to ‘Americans’, Americans who travel in a search of what is beyond work and competition, Americans who travel in hopes of feeling more human, more in tuned with the other people, beings, and things which inhabit this planet in way that goes beyond imperialism and conquest; we travel with dreams, perhaps unrealizable, of finding a way of living that is not predicated on annihilation and Americanization. Perhaps, this assigns a more transcendent, existential purpose to the traveler from the overdeveloped country and a more grounded, basal purpose of travel to the postcolonial migrant who moves in search of economic and political stability.[2] But the existential quest of the American is that of the migrant and the socioeconomic quest of the migrant is that of the American, as both are caught up in the attempt of escape from the tumultuous reality that has come to characterize contemporary life, as both are seeking a moment of respite from residing in the heart and chambers (colonies) of capitalism. Travel is feeling one’s way around, eyes adjusting to sudden brightness, hands recoiling from the surprise of touch, tension easing, blood flowing, air exchanging, as one begins to trust again.

Decades before I landed in Schiphol airport, another Black American had landed there. It was winter, and looking out of the window of her plane Heather Neff saw a snowy, and grey, and beautiful Amsterdam. Neff decided to write a book based on Amsterdam after looking out of the plane’s window. Years later, in 2005, she published Haarlem, a chronicle of the journey of Abel, a native son of Harlem, to Amsterdam in search of his Dutch mother and an escape from the addiction and darkness that defined his life as a Black man in America. Heather Neff transplanted the story of her postgraduate departure from the United States for Europe where she discovered the writings of James Baldwin—specifically “Sonny’s Blues”—that would come to influence the story of Haarlem.[3]

I discovered Haarlem in a church basement in Detroit. Browsing along the racks of romance novels and history books of white America, my interest was piqued by the odd spelling of Harlem and the face on the cover of a brown-skinned man, with a low haircut, slight bags under his eyes and the beginnings of a five o’clock shadow on his face. I felt butterflies in my stomach when I realized that the novel chronicled the fictional journey of Abel Crofton, a New York tunnel worker, as he “explores the streets and canals of Amsterdam.” “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for,I thought to myself as I connected the novel to my then burgeoning thesis project on Black travel writing. I purchased the book and read it in one sitting as I sought to evaluate whether it would work for my project. My hopes were not only satisfied when I saw that the book was peppered with references to Chester Himes, Ishmael Reed, James Baldwin, and W.E.B Dubois but also when I read Heather Neff’s foreword to the novel in which she reminisces on purchasing a “tattered copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in a used bookstore on the Rue La Fayette in Paris” and of leaving the United States at twenty-two years old, the same age as I, “filled with a deep and inarticulate sadness about our nation’s continuing racial strife.” In writing Haarlem, Neff was “like Baldwin” and “moved to examine the terrible forms of self-destruction that haunt our communities—perhaps in response to our continuing rage at being, as Baldwin put it, “the disesteemed.” Reading the words of a fellow Baldwin lover who grew up in Detroit and found her self compelled to leave the United States, I became captivated and sought to converse with Dr. Neff.

As with most interviews, the questions I prepared provided only a foundation for a conversation that strayed beyond the confines of the queries into terrains unforeseen and illuminating as the words, ideas, and experiences of the effervescent and intellectually rich Heather Neff and myself collided into and meshed with each other, producing something unexpected. Neff was born in 1957 in Akron, Ohio to an Episcopal clergyman and a classical pianist and her family integrated an all-white suburb of Akron in 1964. In 1970 she moved to Detroit and eventually became a student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor where she studied English literature. Neff explained that while she was a student at the University of Michigan she began to question her religious upbringing, as did Baldwin, and often felt anger at both the state of race relations in the US and the lack of understanding possessed by her white classmates and instructors. This anger and her budding personal transformations guided her departure from the United States into Paris and later Switzerland, where she completed her doctoral degree. In completing her masters in Paris, Neff wrote her thesis on the “many exiles of James Baldwin” entitled “The Rage Of The Disesteemed”, and she admits that there were aspects of Baldwin, and his writing, that she did not fully understand in her first reading The Fire Next Time at 23, although it did change her “inutterably”, a term that she borrows from Baldwin. The condition of the disesteemed is rage, a smoldering pilot light that is waiting for ignition, a rage that Baldwin experienced in Switzerland as he realized that even the illiterate of the village were related to Dante and Aeschylus in a way that he was not, for he “was in Africa waiting for the conquerors to arrive.” Neff states that in The Fire Next Time Baldwin identified “the anger I felt toward my father (who was an Episcopal priest) and the moral narrowness of the community in which I was raised.” This anger became further elucidated when she read Du Bois Souls of Black Folk while working on her master’s thesis. Neff states:

When I got to the paragraph about “double consciousness” in the first chapter of THE SOULS…it all made sense.  At last I understood the source of my own rage toward my country, American culture, whiteness, the education system, and even myself.  I knew that Baldwin had read Du Bois and experienced his own liberation.

Here we have a genealogy of thought and consciousness that moves from the histories of colonialism and enslavement and the creation of race and Blackness, to Du Bois to Baldwin, to Neff, to myself, and now to you, the reader. This genealogy charts the rage over the violent conditions imposed upon Blackness, conditions that repeat themselves generation after generation. It charts the words and ideas trying to make sense of that rage. It charts the efforts to launch individual rage into a movement against the institutions and structures responsible for the conditions wrapped like chains around the very idea of Blackness.

Baldwin found that the rage of the disesteemed is “personally fruitless, but it is also absolutely inevitable” for “no black [wo]man can hope ever to be entirely liberated from this internal warfare –rage, dissembling, and contempt having inevitably accompanied [her] his first realization of the power of white men.” Going beyond the typographical addendum of gendered pronouns to Baldwin’s words, Neff’s life is a material addendum that illustrates that the rage of the disesteemed doubly conscious subject seethed without regard to gender. The relationship between that rage and travel—departure, flight—is multiple: for travel can be an attempt to escape that inevitable rage, it can be the necessary condition to encounter that rage, even to realize that one was angry, and to work to understand it. Travel can be the means to begin healing that rage, to live beyond it, even if one cannot ever entirely escape it. Although that rage is broadly connected to antagonistic race relations and anti-Black racism, it can become solidified into a single person or object, as Neff’s rage spread to her father and religion before spreading out into other entities. Baldwin’s rage was often at a whiteness that chose to remain white no matter how much violence it caused, at the silent, unforgiving universe, and the arbitrary, non-negotiable demands and realities bequeathed to us, the ‘relatively conscious’, by history. Baldwin characterizes this rage as “internal warfare”, a civil war between the self and Blackness, and it would seem that the artist would be most aptly prepared to fight such an internal warfare for the artist, Baldwin writes, “must actively cultivate that state which most [wo]men, necessarily, must avoid: the state of being alone”. In this state of being alone, as were Neff, Baldwin, Abel, and countless other Black travelers when they left the United States, one can begin undoing the “dissembling”, the concealing of one’s true motives, feelings, and beliefs in hopes of recognizing and embracing the rage and other emotions that Blackness is laden with in hopes of recognizing how they are not aberrations or signs of a defective self, but part of a larger order that exists beyond you or me. Perhaps it is correct that this rage, these emotions, this Blackness, are not wholly escapable for, as Deleuze reminds us, “All social systems present lines of escape; and just as well hardenings that block the escapes”—for the self is trapped in a body that is trapped in a world—Deleuze seems to concede to Baldwin as he continues, “there remain apparatuses – no matter how embryonic – that integrate the lines of escape, that deviate from them, arrest them, congealing them into the new system in preparation.”[4]

 

Travel Account 4:

I ran back to the apartment that night. Out of breath, sweating, my heart rate accelerated. I ran from the Metro station to my apartment. Perhaps I was still nervous from that night in South Africa two years ago when I was chased by a truckload of Colored men in Cape Town for no clear reason, or that time in Detroit…. Running was an instantaneous decision that I barely thought about, it just happened. Running I came up the stairs of the Metro and saw the groups of African guys that hang out the Metro stop. Running It was way past midnight and I was the only one coming out the stop, no one spoke to me, just turned and watched me, I didn’t think about speaking to them, I didn’t think about anything except getting to the apartment. Running I turned the corner into the side street I walked through to get to the main street and just started running, crossing the street, turning the corners, landing at the gate. I swiped my key card, walked in, and pressed my back against the wet other side of the gate. I sighed and saw my breath. I didn’t even realize it was chilly out.


 

Reading the list of train stops, I saw that Haarlem was on the route I was on as I traveled from the Bijlmermeer to Amsterdam Centraal. Even though I did not have time to venture to Haarlem, the central location of Neff’s novel, I imagined what it was like and wondered whether residents of Harlem in the US were aware they were indebted to a European suburb for their borough’s name, as I had never deeply considered the Dutch origins of New York City, just as I often forget that the name of my hometown, Detroit, is of French origin. Origins are often a question, not a fact, an awaiting discovery. The question of origins, of beginnings, for objects is often relegated to trivial popular culture history, but the question of origins for humans and ideas is fundamental, ontological—for it concerns the nature and the source of being, becoming, existence and reality. For Blacks dehumanized into objecthood, origins were a non-question as Blackness was made into an ontological void as the enslaved were natally alienated, cut off from kinship ties and conceptualized as property as part slavery’s “relation of domination,” in which,

Slaveholders annihilated people socially by first extracting them from meaningful relationships that defined personal status and belonging, communal memory, and collective aspiration and then incorporating these socially dead persons into the masters’ world.[5]

In emerging from disenfranchised objecthood into personhood and limited, contested citizenship, kinship and the question of origins for Blacks remained precarious and fragile, for both were still negatively affected by structural racism—e.g. violence, mass incarceration, urbanization and ghettoization, and social welfare policies—as well as an ambivalent relationship to an Africa mutilated by colonialism and resource exploitation. Thus, when Abel Crofton, the protagonist, crouches besides his dying father, Louis Franklin Crofton—“one of the biggest motherfuckers of all time”—who gave him his “addiction to alcohol and …love of jazz”, Abel’s central, most pressing question regards his origins, his mother, stating,

“Pop” I whispered, daring myself to do what forty-five years on earth hadn’t given me the guts to do. “Pop- do you know where she is?”

“I don’t give a shit where she’s at”

“I—I need to find her”

“She don’t want you.”

“Pop, if you know, please tell me,” I said, strangling on the respect I was giving him. […] “At least tell me her name.”

“She don’t have no name”

Finally I stood up. My anger felt like lead in the soles of my shoes. I stood looking down on the mummified figure until I realized he was no longer breathing. Suddenly I was jolted awake by the voice of the captain notifying the passengers that we were beginning our descent into Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport (7-8).

Abel’s question of origins departs from the now familiar narrative of the flawed Black man or woman searching for an absent father, and instead provokes thought of a narrative rooted more deeply in history: the mother who is absent and nameless because of the institution of enslavement, as expressed in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In locating Abel’s maternal origins in the Netherlands, Neff exposes a European branch of the African diaspora, complicating the idea that origins, the motherland, must always be the African continent. The death of his father freed Abel, made his departure possible, allowing him to seek out answers that he had yet to implore during his forty-five years of life. His father’s death is rather akin to the Camusian notion of the ‘death of God’, the death of the higher authority that typically curtails the possibilities for human freedom, a similarity that Abel’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Serge, complicates, stating, “Just because you hate your father doesn’t mean you have to hate God….” (5)

Arriving in Amsterdam, Abel attempts to understand how the people around him in this foreign country understood his interiority when looking at his exteriority,

For a long, cool moment he looked in my eyes and I wondered what this white man saw: A drunk? A tunnel worker? A Black man who had no right to be here?

“Enjoy your stay,” he said, snapping my passport shut and nodding me through the gate (8).

In Amsterdam, who Abel is back home is not etched upon his skin, not readily apparent to the superficial observer. With such, Abel experiences a moment of freedom, a moment of freedom from who he is in America, as his first encounter defies the antagonistic relations he has been habituated to. Abel’s travel to Amsterdam was years in the making, as he collected photographs of the city as a child and he finds the city to be more beautiful than he anticipated. From the airport Abel moves into his place of rest, a small hotel. As the city unfolds around him from the window of a taxi cab his thoughts stray back to New York City as he calibrates the differences between the two, describing “There I stood, my New Yorker’s eyes struggling to look at a skyline with no skyscrapers, my soul terrorized by a city with no sound” (12). After a brief lapse in his hotel room, Abel finds himself in a café, where he finds the waitress with “ginger skin, black eyes and a curly-nappy deep brown ‘fro.” (13) The two enter into a conversation that smoothly glides along because of the worldliness of the waitress, who easily recognizes that Abel is in Amsterdam searching for a relative, explaining, “You know, Amsterdam has always been a city of escape. Many people arrive here from all over the world. So many other people come here to find them.” When the waitress guesses correctly that Abel has Dutch blood, she sends his consciousness back to Harlem to a childhood where everyone ridiculed his biblical name except his grandmother, who cleaned white people’s homes for forty years and hoped that he would grow up to be a better man than his father. The waitress’s name is eventually revealed to be Sophia, and Sophia reluctantly accompanies Abel to his first visit to Registry to begin looking for his mother, an awaiting discovery that he “had no damn idea what she looked like, where she lived, or what the hell happened to her after my father took off.” (24) Walking back to his hotel, Abel moves along a sensuous paths of “fine rain”, the smell of “French fries at a sidewalk stand” and soon his memories are triggered as John Coltrane’s ‘Greensleeves’ “started playing in my head” and his consciousness flies back to Harlem. (25).

Abel learned to drink at thirteen, in Harlem, where he learned “that fading into the crowd was the best way to survive”. He details how drinking transformed him, how his “walk turned into a glide; my syllables slurred into a kind of hip urban speech, and my lids grew heavy and menacing.” (26-27) Drinking was a line of escape—what Deleuze calls a “drug-escape” that is often disconnected from the revolutionary plateau—for, Serge explains, “a drunk is nothing but an escape artist. He uses the bottle to hide from all the pressures of life.” (32) Thus, all lines of escape do not carry a radical impulse, some lines of escape only appear to be a way out, but they more accurately push one further back into the beast, drowning and sedating one, suppressing one’s desire to be freer, so that one’s stasis, one’s inability to escape, is only realized when one wakes up and begins to shake off the hypnosis of inebriation, an inebriation that is not only the consequence of alcoholism, but other false means of escape, such as consumerism. In Harlem, Abel worked as a tunnel worker, beneath ground in the darkness, a darkness that Neff likely transmits from Baldwin who wrote, in “Sonny’s Blues,” of the darkness of the lives of the young men who eventually turn to substance abuse. In recounting a memory of a conversation between himself and Serge days before he left for Amsterdam, Abel notes how Serge cautioned him about going to “a different country, where they don’t speak English, to try to find a women who may not be alive. Who may not have told anybody that she has a son in America. A Black son, at that.” (49) Abel is aware of the possible risks involved in traveling to Amsterdam, but remains committed to going. Serge then suggests that he transform, that he shed his working class attire and way of being, stating:

“Before you get on that plane you’ve got to get some new rags, my friend.”

I looked down at my insulated overalls and scuffed boots. “Don’t think my mama will want her working-class son?”

“It’s those greaseballs at immigration I’m worried about […] And one other thing—” “You got to clean up your act and talk like you’ve got some education when you get there.”

“You mean I can’t show them my true self?”

“That’s something neither one of us can ever afford to do”  (50).

This passage engages both race and socioeconomic class, as the white Serge articulates a type of respectability politics with the intention of helping Abel avoid government administration, and, implicitly, violence. The mention of a true self is interesting coming from Neff who spoke during the interview of her admiration of the existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and noted that she does not agree with the idea of a complete, authentic self. Abel’s mention of a true self, a notion that seems to gesture towards an idealized interior or core, seems to be facetious—for, Abel admits, “I never shared with anyone—not even Serge—what I really felt.” (61) Where does that true self lie: beyond or within the drunk and the womanizer? Or is it the man he could have been, the man that he is, or the man that he is becoming? How can dynamic, aging beings—for whom stasis is only a temporary allusion— ever delimit the boundaries of a true self? In the passage the idea of the self is not cast in existentialist terms of authenticity, freedom, or living in bad faith, but in economic terms as Serge ominously suggests that neither he nor Abel can ever afford to display their ‘true’ self to administrators or managers, without risking, presumably, death either from direct violence or the indirect violence of losing their jobs. Abel, who grew up in government subsidized housing—the projects or ghettos of New York City—worked a dangerous, underpaid job beneath the city as part of the Fordist inspired industrial economy, in which people of color, Blacks and Browns, contributed a vital source of abundant and cheap labor while remaining trapped, held hostage, in a precarious position of socioeconomic marginality. The marginalized ghetto and the precarious labor conditions worked to efficiently extract Black labor power while keeping Black laborers, with their Black bodies and Black lives, at a distance, sealed off, violently blocked, from the material capitals of whiteness.

The above passage between Serge and Abel chronicles a preparation for flight—both the literal flight across the Atlantic Ocean and the more figurative, fugitive material flight from marginality, the confined spaces of the projects and the underground tunnels, the across that lays at the edge of thresholds that Abel is so accustomed to staying behind. Throughout the text Abel expresses reservations at entering and being in certain spaces,

I hesitated for a moment, knowing my Black ass didn’t belong there (45).

And one thing struck out: There wasn’t a Black face to be found. That shit made me nervous (51).

I turned quickly away, a nervous prickling sensation racing down my spine. What the hell was I thinking? What if a cop had seen me looking at her? (37).

These excerpts illustrate how Abel was accustomed to navigating through landscapes fragmented along racial codes with a knowledge of where Blackness was permitted and where it was not—those places where one’s being there can become dangerous. In preparing for flight, Abel is preparing to commit an act of transgression—a Camusian moment when the enslaved reaches his or her limit and refuses to “submit to suffering in abject silence”[6]—to flee, to venture to places in which working class raised-in-the-projects Blackness was not to be found, to venture to places outside of the domain of Blackness, outside of the local and the sanctioned. A preparation for flight begins long before one is seated and awaiting the plane’s take-off from the runway. Preparing for flight began with Abel’s Grandmother, who went to sleep every night “praying you [Abel] won’t end up slaving in New York ‘til the end of your days.” (19) Countless other grandmothers are preparing their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren for flight to the outside that they hope is better. Preparation for flight began when Serge realized how the conditions of capital make it “cheap and easy for us to destroy our brains and our guts [after watching] too many brother and sisters from the working classes lose their lives by ingesting poison.” (31) This is what makes the arrival to the outside so special for the Black subject. For the one individual, the one son or daughter who makes it out, there have been generations that been preparing for that single flight, making sure they have the clothes, the experiences, the knowledge, the histories, the tenacity, the way of being that will be necessary to survive the flight and to survive what comes after the arrival. It must be noted, however, that many have perished preparing for flight—from the nameless enslaved, to Emmitt Till, to Jordan Davis, to Renisha Mcbride, to the 415 killed in Chicago in 2013—meeting violence while still in transit, their lives arrested without warrant.

 

Does One Ever Arrive? 

Perhaps there is a predilection for the story of the journey. For so much of the recounting of the history of Blackness concerns the journey, the passage, the flight of fugitivity as details of the dangerous underground railroad, of the great migration from the American South to the urban North, of the beautifully strong Civil Rights Movement, the trek from the ghetto to the suburbs, and the brave diasporic returns to the African continent. In charting these historical narratives, the story quite often ends with the moment of arrival, the moment when the enslaved touches the shores of Canada to become persons, the moment when that great march on Washington reached the national mall and legislation was finally passed, the moment when Negroes arrived up north, arrived on campus, or arrived in the White House. The story of the journey is so beautiful, so devastating and entails so much sacrifice and perseverance, one can only hope that the moment of arrival will finally bring validation, acknowledgement, and perhaps even freedom. For isn’t that what Blackness is, was about: the journey towards the arrival of freedom? But standing amidst the tumultuous contemporary, looking back at histories of journeys toward freedom, one must question, first, whether freedom truly arrived, and, if so, was it able to remain? Although one can glance at the contemporary and suggest that because the conditions of Blackness are better than before, freer than before, that the arrival was real, such as a suggestion would be premised on what is visible and what is not. What is visible would largely indicate an arrival of freedom, as there is a very visible Black President of the United States, very visible Black middle and upper middle classes, a very visible presence of Black people in popular culture. It is what is not visible—for “if the hegemony of white supremacy is already (and only) excessive, its acts of repetition are its access to unrepresentability; they dissolve its excessiveness into invisibility as simply daily occurrence”[7]— that complicates claims of freedom arrivals, as the work of French born and United States trained sociologist Loïc Wacquant elaborates:

By the end of the seventies, then, as the racial and class backlash against the democratic advances won by the social movements of the preceding decade got into full swing, the prison abruptly returned to the forefront of American society …

[…]

What makes the racial intercession of the carceral system different today is that, unlike slavery, Jim Crow and the ghetto of mid-century, it does not carry out a positive economic mission of recruitment and disciplining of the workforce: it serves only to warehouse the precarious and deproletarianized fractions of the black working class. [8]

 The moments of arrivals were accompanied or followed by a transformation: enslavement turned into Jim Crow, which turned into the Ghetto that is now in its contemporary form as the Hyperghetto and Mass Imprisonment. These transformations of the means of oppression and anti-Black racism, and this reliance on the superficially visible in discerning whether or not freedom has arrived are not limited to geopolitical parameters of the United States, despite the claims of some in the Netherlands who work to articulate racism as something that is confined to the United States in order to maintain the racial innocence, the façade of progressive liberalism, of their polity. In Haarlem, the idea of a tolerant and clean Amsterdam is deployed by means of comparison to the United States in a conversation between Abel and Sophie, as Abel compliments Amsterdam:

“And everything is so damn clean. So safe and polite and well organized…No poor ladies freezing on the street corners.

She laughed softly. “It is true that the buildings look clean. The Dutch do feel safe in their homes… But my country has other faces, too. Believe me, Abel. There’s plenty of crime and filth and fear.”

“Woman, I’ll bet you’ve never even seen the kind of shit that goes on in the States” (65-66).

“It’s true you look quite Dutch,” she said thoughtfully. “I saw that right away.”

“And it doesn’t matter that I’m Black?”

“There are Dutch territories in the Caribbean. Aruba, Curaçao, and Saba—”

“But white people don’t really think of Caribbean people as Dutch, do they?”

“We know that the cultures are different, but they have the full rights of citizens when they live in Dutch territories.”

“Well, Black people have been in America since before the Mayflower and we still don’t have equal rights.”

“We are a small nation, surrounded by big neighborhoods. Perhaps we feel the need to welcome all our people” (66).

This exchange between Abel and Sophia, and their relationship broadly, expresses some of the novel’s Baldwinian underpinnings. Later in the text, Sophia discloses to Abel that she too has been in recovery from alcoholism for “seven years, four months, and twenty-two days” (67) and both Abel and Sophia have a sibling still struggling with abuse—for Sophia it is her younger sister who is also prostituting and for Abel it is his newly discovered twin brother, a jazz musician, who grew up in Britain and the Netherlands and uses “smack” or heroin. Baldwin calls upon us, human beings, to confront the darker, less appealing aspects of our human condition, the gritty, the violent, the negative aspects of our individuated and collective beings that we often want to conceal out of view, to forget, to displace or deflect onto someone or something else. Confronting the darker aspects of our self is not enough, however, for one must also work to accept the pain and humanity of the other, for it is only in recognizing and accepting the vulnerable, flawed humanity of the other that we can accept our own flawed existence. This is why in “Sonny’s Blues”, the 1957 short story that inspired Haarlem, the unnamed older brother is able to gain self-understanding through his recognition of the anguish of his younger brother Sonny, a process of recognition and acceptance that Neff reimagines in Abel and Sophia. Baldwin layers several riffs on the importance of listening in “Sonny’s Blues”: how one could not be free until one listened, how one must be willing to listen when a musician or artist is finally able to release “that storm inside”, for, he writes, “while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.” Because it took Abel over forty years to “get outside”, as Baldwin writes, and witness the clean and beautiful Amsterdam, it is hard for him to listen to Sophia’s insistence that there is filth and fear even if it is not readily visible. Abel has no issue confronting and acknowledging the dirt of his own country, for he lived in the midst of it, where it was unavoidable. This is why Baldwin, and others, are able to argue that even though Blackness experiences agony, out of this agony comes a unique and complex understanding of humanity and the human condition that is cognizant of how “hatred and misery and love” coexist and intertwine in a way that is felt like ocean spray on skin leaving droplets of water stuck on the hairs of our arms and legs.

Because Abel is, perhaps for the first time, feeling as if he is a part of a community in the Netherlands, since he traveled there because of “a kind of loneliness” (66), Sophia seems reluctant to admit that his and her Blackness may complicate their Dutch identity. Sophia was very likely aware of the problems arising in the Netherlands due to Dutch resistance to racialized immigrants, but she still chooses to deploy the legal truism that Caribbean immigrants are entitled to the full rights and privileges of Dutch citizenship, thus, proclaiming the truth of that idea by repeating it, “naming” or uttering the promise of citizenship it in order to “claim” it—as the utterance becomes real by virtue of it being spoken. Even though Abel recognizes her infidelity to reality he decides not to press the issue for he “hadn’t traveled to Amsterdam just to find some reason to diss it” (67). Further, the comparison presented between the United States in which Blacks still lack equal citizenship rights and the Dutch where all people are embraced, signals Sophie’s embracing of Abel. Despite his disenfranchisement in America, where “the tunnels feel like home” (66), the Netherlands becomes Sophia writ large as she expresses her growing acceptance of Abel, his Blackness, and his difficult past, as she confesses to Abel stating, “In your eyes I see loneliness and a quiet despair. I think you have searched a long time for something—or someone—to trust” (68-69). Abel’s growing love for Amsterdam, for the Netherlands, is consummated when he has sex with Sophia, during which she made him feel “a kind of a deep, smothering safety. Like this was the one sure thing in my life” (72). For Abel, the beauty and safety of Amsterdam becomes yoked to Sophia.

Haarlem’s Baldwinian roots are made increasingly clear in its consistent critique of evasion, of avoiding truths and realities of the past and present, as Serge unequivocally explains to Abel, “Some wounds won’t stop bleeding until you start dealing with them.” Even though one can hide from reality through substance abuse, the reality will not disappear but very likely will only get worse. Even in Giovanni’s Room Baldwin comments on self-deception, the “elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, [that people use] to make themselves and the world to appear to be what they and the world are not.” The evasion of reality, and seeking shelter in illusions, are not just the acts of the individuals, but can also be the acts of collectives and of nations. Baldwin unrelentingly critiqued the racial innocence of whiteness, the willful ignorance of the histories and realities of race, colonialism, enslavement, and apartheid—the horrors of the past and present. Baldwin writes in the essay Stranger in the Village, which recounts his experiences in Leukerbad, Switzerland:

People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who remains in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster (174-175).

Sophia’s insistence that the Dutch “feel the need to welcome all of our people”, contrary to the United States, alludes to a broader phenomenon in the Netherlands in which the violent expression of racism in the United States is used as evidence that racism does not exist in the Netherlands in hopes of maintaining Dutch racial innocence. Racial innocence, as political theorist Lawrie Balfour has noted, can “accommodate both an earnest commitment to the principles of equal rights and freedom, regardless of race, and a tacit acceptance of racial division and inequality as normal.”[9]

In 1877, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African-American a-cappella ensemble formed in 1871 composed of students from Fisk University, performed in the Netherlands after touring other parts of Europe in hopes of raising money. Scholar Helen Metzelaar has done original archival research on this little known history and notes that the Dutch hosts of the singers “preferred to concentrate on slavery in the United States.”[10] Although the Dutch expressed moral outrage over enslavement in the US, there were few, if any, connections drawn between the history of American enslavement and the then very recent history of Dutch colonial slavery that was only abolished in 1863, decades after Britain in 1834 and France in 1848. Throughout the twentieth-century, and continuing into the present, there have been reports and images of US anti-black racism published in the Netherlands. These images and reports of US anti-black violence that have circulated throughout the Netherlands, in newspapers and magazines, and have shaped how anti-black violence is perceived and understood. Publishing brutally detailed accounts and images of American lynchings, some Dutch individuals have used the representation of anti-black violence in the US as a means of deflecting legitimate claims of racism in the Netherlands. Because Dutch racism, as does all forms of racism, takes on many forms, many point towards how Dutch expressions of anti-black racism do not mirror the expression of anti-black violence in the US in order to argue that anti-black racism does not exist in the Netherlands. Racism becomes that which occurred elsewhere historically, a matter of ‘there’ that happened ‘then’. This arguably dominant framework routinely locates the origin of anti-black racism in the United States, and presents its Dutch manifestations as wallowing in a dark colonial past, sealed off from the liberal present.

Racism, then, is delimited to a specific geopolitical temporality, a time and space outside of the Dutch’s immediate environs that imagines and posits anti-black racism as something exceptionally US American, and possibly South African. Holding anti-black racism in the US as the prototypical expression of “real” racism defines racism as structural violence against Black people that is characterized by deep racial antagonisms, which one, ostensibly, does not find in the Netherlands. Despite the growing evidence against it, the notion, the myth of the Netherlands as a generous, welcoming, and tolerant (non-racist) country has proven to be firmly entrenched. The constant retelling of this myth, the repetition of this strategic utterance, has worked to strengthen the idea of the White Autochtoon[11] Dutch person as benevolent, welcoming, tolerant, and committed to a progressive liberal agenda, rendering specious any charge of racism against them.  This image of tolerance and progressive liberalism impedes any acknowledgment or exploration of the oppressive structural sociopolitical processes that detrimentally influence the lives of racialized Allochtoon citizens in the Netherlands. The assertion of smiling innocence silences the legitimate claims of the existence of a concealed racial contract which,

… establishes a racial polity, a racial state, and a racial juridical system, where the status of whites and nonwhites is clearly demarcated, whether by law or custom [that works to] secure the privileges and advantages of the full white citizens [while] maintaining the subordination of nonwhites.[12]

 Racial innocence, which frames racism and racialization as questions of “good” or “bad” individual behavior, works with the Dutch national discourse of tolerance and benevolence and its purportedly colorblind and depoliticized discourse. However, the problem is not the “good” or “bad” intentioned individual, but the systemic privileging of “Dutch-looking” people.  Appeals to innocence, ignorance, and good intentions erase accountability, and mask how white Autochtoon Dutch individuals have profited from a whiteness that is imagined as innocent while structural racial inequalities continue to be reproduced in Dutch society. Spectacular displays of US anti-black racism as “real” racism conceals the reality of anti-black racism in the Netherlands, which often takes the form of an administrative and juridical violence that is imagined to be less than less savage than bodies hanging from trees, despite the material similarity between the two, as expressed in the following quote from a 2009 blog post entitled “Is Amsterdam Bjilmer turning into a Ghetto?”

It seems like a ghetto disease, but just like East London also Amsterdam Bijlmer is turning into an American ghetto. Amsterdam Bijlmer is a neighborhood in the city district Amsterdam South-East, it’s the district where large Antillean, Surinam and African communities live. The latest incident was the killing of a nineteen-year-old black teenager by another black teenager. With twenty-two shooting incidents this year, Amsterdam Bijlmer is headline news in The Netherlands.[13]

 

 

Concluding Comments: On Stew’s Passing Strange[14]

 

Departing Amsterdam with a Fugitive Tourist’s Arrival

For the traveler who has set out alone with no mandate except a plan to escape from his own cultural milieu, the Other and his difference will be held in esteem: the exotic landscape and the contact with faraway and different people offer him the deterritorialization that he is seeking as a means of resolving his own internal conflicts or of discovering new sources of artistic inspiration…[15]

Tourism becomes a quest to recover the lost authenticity, to experience a reality more “real” than that offered by the modern world.[16]

Stew’s musical, Passing Strange, —layered with a love of “60s Los Angeles AM radio, 70s soul and OG punk rock”—opened on Broadway in 2008. The protagonist is Youth, a teenage African-American male growing up in a late 1970s, Christian, middle-class home in South Central Los Angeles with a single mother. Youth is eager to escape. He especially wants to escape from his Mother who pushes Youth to conform to a particular form of black identity, as when she asks him to go with her to the Baptist fashion show. His mother is the primary source of his anxiety throughout the play as she constantly questions, “Why don’t you want to be around your own people?” It is not simply that Youth does not want to be Black, or be around Blackness, it is that he does not want to be Black and have to deny the hybridity, the diversity, that is Blackness. When Youth connects the church service to blues music and the African oral call-and-response tradition, his mother abruptly slaps him for suggesting that church spirituals, traditional African music, and the blues are diasporically connected. She chastises, “Don’t you know the difference between the sacred and the profane?” to which Youth poignantly responds, “I can’t hear the difference.” As Stew reminiscences about his own upbringing in the Black middle class in an interview, “[t]he only thing worse than being African was being some shiftless blues guy.” With his mother’s slap, Youth realizes that even though Blackness is radically diverse, a heterogeneous assemblage composed of disparate but intimate parts, that diversity is often denied and suppressed by various means, including a Black middle class that works to deploy a certain type of African-American identity as authentic and sufficient. Youth tries various means of escaping his middle-class, post-Civil Rights existence, which he finds “slave”-like. He smokes marijuana with Mr. Franklin his starry-eyed “Baptist rebel” choir teacher and preacher’s son who fawns over the idea of Baldwin and Camus in Paris cafes but has yet to leave the country. Sitting in Mr. Franklin’s Volkswagen, high on marijuana, Youth listened to him talk about Stockholm, Rome, and Paris and felt the “words wash over him like a Bach fugue creeping out of a cheap car…” the Latin word fugue (flight) emerges again as he thinks, “thank you brother, thank you for this fugue.” Fugue, then, is used two ways: the first is in reference to a contrapuntal musical composition in which a short melody is introduced then integrated into the other parts, the second is “a state or period of loss of one’s identity, often coupled with flight from one’s usual environment.”[17] Drug induced fugues take place throughout the musical as Youth experiments with marijuana and hashish, acid, and speed, in partial acts of escapism in which Youth and his friends seek to depart from or to complicate the banality of their suburban existence on a “psychedelic underground railroad ride”. Other times Youth’s drug use is about augmenting or bolstering his sense of self, of discovering new, or deeper aspects, to step or float outside of his typical boundaries. Mr. Franklin is well versed in Albert Camus as he remarks that even “Slaves got options! Options, ya dig? I’m talking escape…revolt…death.” Youth also forms a punk-rock band called the “Scaryotypes” whose song “Sole Brother” has lyrics such as “I’m at war with Negro mores. I’m at war with ghetto norms. My Mother stands in the doorway begging me to conform.” Youth dares to imagine a different way of living and being. For Youth, there is nothing that is “authentic” or “real” in Los Angeles and his acquiescence to the niche and identity that has been carved out for him would be to live in bad faith.

Before Youth can depart Los Angeles he must confront his Mother and during “Mom Song” the narrator remarks that Youth’s “questioning of everything” is breaking her heart. Youth’s constant questioning, his realization that his life in Los Angeles is not the only life possible signals his full acquiescence into adolescence, that he is ready to create a life that may not include his mother. Mother tells Youth that “See I’ve been running from this world for far longer than you. But I didn’t know where else to go, so I hid from it in you.”  Although Youth’s angst-ridden relationship to his middle-class upbringing can cause the viewer to also think of his Mother and her agenda as problematic, one should not forget that the play is set directly post-Civil Rights a time in which many urban ghettos were still burning from riots, and Civil Rights public policy measures were being weakened as conservatives took over Federal leadership. Mother’s decision to raise her son in what she felt was one of the best available options for his continued social-economic progress is, in many ways, understandable. Mother’s confession that she has been running from the world but did not know where to go reminds one of the generations of Black Americans accommodating to new-found freedoms, whether in post-Reconstruction or during the Great Migration to the urban North. These Black folks were running but running towards the best available option in a context that was not entirely rid of anti-Black racism and marginalizing apartheid policies. The suburb was America’s answer to the problem of urban, inner-city Blackness and post-War societal uncertainty, yet many individuals who grew up there began to resent and resist its ethos of conformity, banality, and an opiated, delusional sense of the Real. Passing Strange locates Blackness within that narrative of wandering, rebellious teenagers, which does not go entirely smoothly, as Youth’s Uncle satirizes: “ “I’m just tryin’ ta live mah life”??? You better leave that kinda crap to whitey!” Youth responds:

Gotta get away from these philistines, philistines!!!

Aint no way out, huh? Is that what you think? Well, guess what! You know what I’m saving money for? I’m going to Europe. And not just to visit. I’m moving there for good!

Soon, Youth is saying “Auf wiederschen, L.A.P.D” and finds himself on “Air Amsterdam Flight Zero. Non-stop to the Real…” The Narrator sets the scene:

Amsterdam, spring sunshine,

And the vibe is alive and the girls look fine,

He sits in a café, like Baldwin back in the day.

And he saw that his whole journey through the bowels of the middle-class coon show had led him to this single moment of utter crystalline clarity…

The musical stresses the parallels between Youth’s arrival in Europe and the precedent that was set by Baldwin and Josephine Baker who broke Paris, and Youth, who has “broke his chain and escaped to the North!” is ready to make Amsterdam his. Sitting in the café, Youth makes acquaintance with a host of typical Amsterdam types, open to sex, drugs, and jazz, and he soon acquires the keys to a flat from a friendly, sensual waitress. With the keys to her flat in his hands, Youth remarks “And after so long feelin’ so alone, I feel like picking up the phone, and calling up that place called home to say I found a brand new family, Where I can be that thing called ‘me’ ”. Thus, in the moment of dislocation and relocation Youth feels that he can be his “self” which is a slight display of naivety as he assumes that he has arrived at the authentic self and not just embodying another performance of one of many possible selves.

The importance of Youth’s trip to Amsterdam is illuminated just before he departs, now leaving his potential lover, the waitress, who gave him a place to stay. Leaving just before it got “real” Youth writes home to Mr. Franklin, a beautiful, difficult letter:

Dear Mr. Franklin: Today I don’t feel as ugly as I did yesterday. In high school gym showers I crouched in shame like Adam in the garden, but this morning in Amsterdam I was ten foot tall on a movie screen staring down at myself in the back row.

Today in Amsterdam the charcoal drawing she made of me naked doesn’t look as ugly as I felt yesterday. This is the real city of angels. They remade me in their image…Did I say already, Mr. Franklin, that today in Amsterdam they taught me how to wear my body? Today I learned that even if its ugly man, you got to wear it like a gown.

The black philosopher, Tommy Curry, rightly noted, “there are no theories to describe or situate the internalization of this pathology [how white supremacy damages the “material and psychological existence of Black people in total”] in Black men or boys”.[18] Beneath Youth’s veneer of angry rebellion, of frustration and impatience with Negro mores, is an exposed human vulnerability of feeling ugly that is situated with how feeling ugly is a fundamental parcel of anti-Black racism. Passing Strange is aware of middle-class privilege, but it is also aware that racism transcends class and that young Black people born in the aftermaths of struggle face unique issues that are both universally human but at once shaped and predicated upon the problem of race.

Amsterdam is slowly healing from its experiences of colonialism and enslavement, a healing effort that is being led by passionate and brave Dutch Caribbean citizens who want their country to acknowledge its problems and to honestly work to address them. As the Dutch heal, so too do Black Americans who travel to Europe, in this case, Black men, sometimes naïve of what lies beneath the surface in the countries they travel to, but nonetheless carrying scars that can only be seen when outside of the light of one’s home country. These scars need to be kissed by a friendly waitress; they need to be joked about by well-meaning friends.

I remember when someone in Europe said that she found my full lips to be beautiful. I remember feeling skeptical because of the long history/contemporary of Eurocentric aesthetics. I remember not believing her but I also remember reflecting on what it meant to be hesitant to accept love. This is Blackness.

 

Notes

[1] James Baldwin “Sonny’s Blues”

[2] Overdeveloped refers to a way of seeing global inequality that focuses on the negative consequences of excessive consumption in Western imperial countries such as the United States.

[3] Neff, Heather. Haarlem: A Novel. New York: Harlem/Broadway, 2005.

[4] Felix Guattari and Giles Deleuze “Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium.

[5] Vincent Brown “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery” American Historical Review (1233) December 2009.

[6] David Scott “The Paradox of Freedom: An Interview with Orlando Patterson” in Small Axe 17.1 2013.

[7] (emphasis added) see “The Avant-garde of White Supremacy”  by Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton.

[8] Loïc Wacquant “From Slavery To Mass Incarceration” In New Left Review 13, January-February 2002.

[9] in The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy (27).

[10] Metzelaar, Helen. “A Hefty Confrontation: The Fisk Jubilee Singers Tour the Netherlands in 1877.” Tijdschrift Van De Koninklijke Vereniging Voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis 55.1 (2005): 67-86. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.

[11] Autochtoon—this Dutch term translates to “originating from this country” as opposed to the term Allochtoon which translates to “originating from another country” and is used to refer to immigrants and their descendants.

[12] Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (1997).

[13] see Afro-Europe Blog article “Is Amsterdam Bijlmer turning into a ghetto?” 13.10.2009

[14] Quotes from the Musical are taken from Stew, Heidi Rodewald, and Annie Dorsen. Passing Strange: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema, 2009.

[15] Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi and Mildred Mortimer “Travel, Representation, and Difference, or How Can One be a Parisian” in Research in African Literatures 23.3 (28).

[16] Wenche Ommundshen “The World, the Text, and the Tourist: Murray Bail’s “Homesickness” as Guide to the Real” in Journal of Narrative Technique 21.1 1991 (2-3).

[17] from New Oxford American Dictionary.

[18] from “On Orville Lloyd Douglass and Why Black Men Hating Themselves Have No Academic Currency” (blog post).

 

Calvin Walds

Calvin Walds

Calvin Walds, originally from Detroit, Michigan, holds an MA in Pan-African Studies from Syracuse University. He is a Callaloo Fellow and has completed workshops with Cave Canem in Brooklyn, New York.

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