Act Like You Know: African-American Autobiography and White Identity.
Crispin Sartwell's Act Like You Know is as exasperating a book as one is likely to encounter in many a season. Its subject, as the subtitle indicates, is African-American autobiography of various sorts--from slave narratives through the mixed-genre works of W. E. B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston to The Autobiography of Malcolm X and rap music of the present day--and what such work can reveal to readers, both black and white (but especially the latter), about the psychology, sociology, and politics of identity formation. In his opening chapter, Sartwell makes the reasonable if not altogether new point that theory, whether literary, philosophical, or political, is always autobiographically determined and, conversely, that every autobiography contains the theory, explicit or implicit, of its own making. The first half of this proposition was given classic expression by Paul Valery several decades ago: "There is no theory that is not a fragment, carefully prepared, of some autobiography." Its latter half has be en the guiding principle of the now innumerable workers in autobiography studies for the past thirty years or so. There is an added twist to Sartwell's argument which says that critics of African-American autobiography--particularly white critics--have refused to acknowledge the theoretical capabilities in the literature they study, and, equally, they decline to recognize the autobiographical bases of their own theorizing.
No one would quarrel with these ideas: They are in the air today, they are intelligent, and they are obviously relevant to the material Sartwell addresses. Why, then, the exasperation? It is because the bizarre, self-regarding tone of the book--the relation between the author, on the one hand, and his material and audience, on the other--gets in the way of what he has to say about Hurston or Malcolm X or any other figure. In a book that argues for the autobiographical determinants of theory, one would expect a certain amount of self-revelation, but not to this extent and not of this deafening sort. Sartwell, as "white folks" handling black texts, is so consumed with guilt and self-hatred and self-laceration (which becomes, by a peculiar and paradoxical twist, self-exculpation) that the reader can hear nothing else coming through the static. "I have a fairly extreme self-loathing about the self-constructions that go into making a racist social structure, but by the same token I can neither shed those self-con structions ... nor cease to experience the pleasures of power." Why "by the same token"? It's a minor point, but the phrase, which comes ready-made to Sartwell's hand, reveals that it is not thinking that is going on here but mere gesturing and posing. "The only people I dislike, other than myself, are other people": I suppose this has some meaning, and one might be able to figure out what it is, but I do not believe it has anything to do with the complex issues that compose the ostensible subject of the book. There has been an unfortunate trend in recent academic writing wherein fascination with the author's autobiography displaces altogether the putative subject. Sartwell's is an extreme case, and that the fascination is largely negative (except for the aforementioned twist of self-gratulation that comes with the implicit claim "I'm more self-loathing than you are") does nothing to render the example more edifying or admirable.
"Jacobs did not lack an epistemic community," we are told; but, Sartwell continues, "she lacked power to shield her from those with epistemic and physical hegemony.... Henry Bibb ... felt the limitations of epistemic community acutely....slaves were isolated from the larger epistemic communities.... And what this isolation constitutes is an epistemic regime.... " What Sartwell does in this passage--besides bludgeoning the reader with epistemic--is what he excoriates other white commentators for; i.e., he takes the evidence provided by black autobiographers as a kind of inert material demanding the fancy conceptual terminology of a white (but would-be-black) intellectual to achieve its full being as both theory and practice. That Sartwell turns on his own performance with "self-loathing" does not alter that performance, nor does it exempt him from the strictures directed at other sinners.
But if epistemic is overused, the phrase and so forth--which I take to be a sure sign of non-thinking--is abused much more profligately: "It can be studied sociologically and so forth....a further eruption of strangeness, and so forth ... as savages, bodies, mammals, sexual omnivores, and so forth ... as an advocate of democracy, and so forth .... One is a racist and so forth....not to segregate universities by armed force, and so forth ... economically divided along racial lines, and so forth ... industrious, entrepreneurial, ingenious, and so forth ... depends on our image of your criminality, and so forth. ... black families 'don't value education,' and so forth ...." These examples are drawn from six pages of text. But the and so forth I prize most comes when, engaged in special pleading on behalf of rap's free use of words like bitch, ho, and nigger, Sartwell writes, "There's no doubt such terms are 'degrading,' and so forth." It's hard to know which to admire more--the quotation marks around degrading, which makes objection to the terms seem prissy, or and so forth, which dismisses any objection as utterly trivial.
Act Like You Know concludes on a note of supreme yearning and wishful thinking. "He's rich," Sartwell says of Ice T, one of his principal heroes ("I identify with figures such as Ice T or Snoop.... These guys are my heroes"): He's rich, "and it's obvious that he's smart, and so forth. But he's also got ten inches for the bitches." While this may seem a call for life and yet more life, Sartwell makes it obsessively clear throughout that he is helplessly, hopelessly at one with the suicide-driven white folks who infest his book like vermin: "White culture is a culture of death," he writes. "We seek death.... White culture is a deathbound culture." And he is nothing if not repetitive and insistent on the subject: "White culture is a culture of death ..., an act of suicide ..., a demented turning toward death ..., an inscription of suicide." O for a beaker full of the warm South, the dying Keats wrote, but not so Sartwell. 0 to have ten inches for the bitches--this is what our author so desperately desires, even in his death throes. And it is too bad, because there are moments when Sartwell clearly has something interesting and important to say, but whatever it is disappears again and again behind the incessant posturing and attitudinizing.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1999|
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