Thursday, July 27, 2006

On Fundamentalism

On 15 August 2004, Atefah Sahaaleh was hanged in a public square in the Iranian city of Neka. She was convicted of Crimes against chastity and of adultery. The Iranian state newspaper said she was 22. In truth she was only 16 and not married but the charge of adultery was just one of many things in this case that made no sense. And while she was hanged for her sexual crimes the man who was also implicated got a mere 95 lashes for what was essentially a continuous and systematic rape of the young girl. But Iran is a fundamentalist state and one of the many things that fundamentalists have in common whether they be Islam, Jewish or Christian, is that there is no such thing as rape.

This incident mirrors of all things the BIBLE. In the notorious adulterous woman chapter, where Jesus is challenged to stone the accused woman, the man is never mentioned as if the woman was caught masturbating to Playgirl. But Judaism at the time was also a fundamentalist religion. And while Jesus asked that the person without sin should cast the first stone maybe he should have asked another question: What’s up with the fear of female sexuality and why do only the Abraham based religions have it?

Maybe the root lies with Abraham himself. It took both him and Hagar to produce Ishmael, and he was the one who did not trust God to give him a son, yet Hagar was the one banished. All bets are off when female sexuality comes into play and nothing is the man’s fault. Nobody understands this better than fundamentalists. Couple years ago, an Iranian pamphlet was circulated about the world of sin that existed in the body of a woman. Women were walking Pandora’s boxes capable of inciting even the most virtuous man to fall into an inglorious sexual stupor and even a small slit in a chador showing nothing but the eye could still cause a man to stumble. Sayid Qutb, the father of islamic fundamentalism (Islamism) came to his radical philosphy not because he was concerned about the unholiness of the world but because he couldn't stand being so horny all the time when he was in America in the 1940's. Add to that the end of the last islamic world power (the Ottoman) and you're left with a man who was both dick obsessed and dickless. In Iran there must be 4 male witnesses to corroborate a rape and in many cases the woman is the one punished. But how can a country even conceive of such a thing as rape when the age of consent in Iran is 9?

And that’s another thing about fundamentalism. Not only does it abound in fear of female sexuality but it also drips of sexual hypocrisy. Picture an Islamic martyr philosophy that promises suicide bombers a virgin filled orgy in heaven (72 virgins for every man!). To ensure that he is ready, many suicide bombers wrap their genitals in a protective material so that if nothing else, the penis will make it to heaven. Just what today’s bomb crazy fanatic needs, a paradise of women too inexperienced to judge his non-existent sexual skills. A good thing that, because these religious sects are nothing if not homosocial. So Boboshanti Rastafarians move in packs of men who call one man father, and the Taliban when not killing women, paint lipstick and eye shadow on their photographs and cross that messy line between homosocial and homosexual. For a pack of men who hate gays fundamentalists sure love to hang together.

But lest anybody think I’m anti Islam, the Christian nutcases aren’t much better. So in Jamaica, Pentecostal preachers still rail against the use of contemporary music in church, lambaste women for dancing, wearing pants or using hair products, and frequently leave women with the impression that rape is their fault. And while fundamentalist religion is devoutly religious, it has the intellectual certitude of a housefly. This is because thinking is anathema to religion and any form of intellectual discourse is tantamount to having kids with Satan. Fundamentalists have a virulent hatred of books, of philosophy and of the why? Question. Theirs is not the way to think, provoke or challenge. It is to obey, force and command others to be just like them. This flies in the face of Jesus Christ, and Mohammed who believed that the work of God began in the mind, not the fist.

Of course being anti-book serves a purpose. Because Fundamentalism is also one other thing: False. Reading is one of the surest ways to find that out. The big lie about fundamentalists, from the Ayatollah, to the Christian Coalition, to the I-served-in Germany-but- I wasn’t-a-Nazi-Pope, to that preacher in Jamaica who though gang rape could be dealt with by prayer, is that they are returning to something, a lost, cherished value. Fundamentalism preaches to be just that, a return to the fundamentals, the basics, and the core of the faith before years of bad influence corrupted things. But even a cursory glance at the three Abraham based religions proves that to be absolutely untrue.

There’s not a single religion that began as fundamentalist. Not Islam, which in the Crusades was exemplary for its open-mindedness, Not Judaism and certainly not Christianity whose Jesus was killed precisely because he did not conform to a fundamentalist vision of a messiah. On the contrary, these religions began as open-minded reactions to rigid institutions and that is why they attracted numbers to begin with, in particular, women. Fundamentalism on the other hand is a reactionary movement. A return to a warped idea of basics that never existed, that comes frequently with a violent agenda. In this regard the conservative Christian is no different from the Taliban. Nothing in the bible says to support the Iraq invasion or prayer in schools. Nothing in the Koran says that while sex with an 8 year old is statutory rape, sex with a 9 year old is ok. These are laws invented by repressed men to suppress everybody else. And nobody suppresses like a repressed man. What these movements also have is large populations of disenfranchised men, lacking relevance in their own countries that are suddenly empowered to take things by force. Fundamentalism is as much about economics and social disenfranchisement as it is about religion.

In Christianity there are virtues and vices. But there is a third direction, a far opposite of vice but just as bad. This is called perversion. For example, purity is the virtue. Licentiousness is the vice. But there is a perversion as well and that’s called puritan. A warped, extreme version of the original value that causes as much damage as the vice. So a puritan is a pervert. So is a fundamentalist. In their world a righteous man can do no wrong, rape is the woman’s fault, everybody else is going to hell and they never ever have to hold themselves accountable. Rastafari is not much better in this regard as the Rastafarian frequently “licks out” against the Babylon in front of him but never holds a mirror to himself. And let’s not even get started on how Rastas treat women having their period.

I know this sounds like an unfocused rant, but the execution of 16-year-old girls pisses me off. A preacher scolding a congregation for telling the police that a deacon orchestrated a gang rape horrifies me. A false doctrine trying to pass itself off as an older vision insults my intelligence and the bloodshed these religions leave in their wake convinces me that there is no God in them. The great thing about Fundamentalism is that something blazing that intense is bound to burn itself out. There is only so much that victims can take. So next time, Capleton screams More Fire, slip some dynamite in his pocket and light it.

Monday, July 17, 2006

On Black Swan Green

When I'm not working on selling my soul to Wolfmother, I try to read. Sometimes a new book leaves me pissed off at the wasted time that could have been spent toe clipping. Other times and it almost never happens, I'm thrown for a loop, bracing myself in the chair and gasping in wonder. Lately I've been doing that over David Mitchell's brilliant, brilliant Black Swan Green.

Black Swan Green, to be simplistic, is the story of Brit boy Jason Taylor, thirteen years old who amid trying to hide both his stammer and erections with increasing failure, goes through thirteen months of among other things the Falkland Islands conflict, truly horrendous bullies, and the disintegration of his parent's marriage. Child protagonists work best not when they have little idea of what's going on but when they can see all the pieces yet nothing adds up. It's heartbreaking how Jace, for all his cleareyed perception cannot fathom why adults make the messes they do.

Black Swan Green has been called the "British Catcher in the Rye," but this couldn't be more misleading. This is not adult angst trying to fit into kids' shorts. Jace remains wonderfully, unforgettably a kid even after his first snog and feel up. Notice I call the kid Jace. That because, like the very best first person novels, Huck Finn, Great expectations, you fall in love with this kid from the very first line, which you'll simply have to buy to read. But why am I selling David Mitchell? He's been nominated for the Booker twice and will most likely win this year. Lord knows he doesn't need this struggling writer's help

He blurbed my friend T. Cooper's book (at least I think he did...not sure now) and last year when I ran into her I asked, "Do you ever get the feeling that David Mitchell is unnecessarily brilliant? That he got two of whatever it is we got one of? She laughed. After this book I'm convinced that I've been selling my soul to the wrong people.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Magic N****r

America’s finest band, TV On The Radio, opened their first album, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes with the finest lyrics I’ve heard in years:
“Woke up in a Magic Nigger Movie/ with the bright lights pointing at me as a metaphor”
As great lyrics often do, these got me thinking. We all like our black people tagged and profiled, but The Magic Nigger was a brand new old thing, a species that was always among us, but perhaps not noticed until now. That may be because so many other Negroes got in the way. There is the Mammy of course and the Uncle since everybody knows that black kids ain’t got no daddy. There’s Steppin’ Fetchit: the well-meaning but intellectually spotty coon who sho is funny. There’s the Oreo who is white on the inside and the Black whitey who plays the racially vague card. There's Miss Sassy Black Woman, the post hip-hop Mammy showing sass but no ass. Then there is, as Greg Tate once called him/her, the black sex machine gone berserk. An insidious creature typified in the text of Mandingo and the subtext of Alien. Lately we’ve have had to deal with the thug who came rather curiously in hetero and homo varieties. So boisterous have these stereotypes been in the jostling for attention that the Magic Nigger almost passed by unnoticed. Almost.

But bringing attention to oneself is anathema to the Magic Nigger. His mission in life is to bring attention to the white people around him. The Magic Nigger is no Bojangles. In fact most times the Magic Nigger is more intelligent, more refined and just plain smarter than the white hero. He is not really the good guy, but like Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, his purpose is to make the good guy better. The Magic Nigger’s purpose is to humanize the bitch as Wanda Sykes did for Jane Fonda in Monster In Law. His purpose is to help the white man tap into his latent humanity as Morgan Freeman did for Miss Daisy; to have him recognize his inner power, as Morgan Freeman did for Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty; or to introduce him to cool new gadgets as Morgan Freeman did for Christian Bale in Batman.

The Magic Nigger is not as old as blackface, but he is older than Will Smith. Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby may have been the first two. These men were not maids with big breasts or butlers with big eyes, but smart scene-stealers with little big minds (a Magic Nigger like any other black character “steals” a scene). In I-Spy, Cosby was Ivy league educated, cultured, refined and poised in a way that challenged black stereotypes before he became one. In To Sir With Love, Poitier was a teacher whose job it was to teach one-dimensional white kids how to become three-dimensional human beings, even if he never moved from one dimension himself.

In some cases the Magic Nigger has actual magic. Look no further than The Green Mile where Michael Clark Duncan, mistaken and imprisoned as a Black Sex Machine Gone Berserk, turns out to be a truly magic nigger after all, who uses his powers, to heal rats and the brutal blockage of Tom Hank’s urinary tract. Ditto Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, a Miss Sassy Black Woman who becomes another magic nigger with real magic, a blackie who didn't even know she could talk to them dead people until the white ghost shows up. Bagger Vance is such a force of nature; effortless, natural, instinctual, primitive that one is not even sure he exists, hence The Legend Of.

The Magic Nigger has a fantastic head, but no penis. Harry Belafonte, a man blessed with foresight in those earlier years turned down the roles that Sidney Poitier eventually accepted because of this reason. So the story is changed in the Pelican brief to make sure that Julia Roberts and Denzell Washington do not have sex, despite showing a screen chemistry that Roberts has not drummed up with another man since. The Magic Nigger is here to help the girl not have sex with her. A magazine recently pointed out that Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd had the sexual chemistry that neither Brad Pitt nor Tom Cruise has ever managed with a woman on screen and yet they will never, ever do it. But it’s not just the missing penis that makes the magic nigger unreal, but also the missing conflict.

Conflict is when a character starts at x, goes through y to get to z. For the magic nigger who is perfect to begin with it’s xxx. He is the noble savage transmogrified in a three-piece suit. His purpose is to add the third dimension to the white character, not himself. Some people view this as progress.

Not even Spike Lee could kill the magic nigger. That’s because the magic nigger is a fixture of the white movie, not the black one. The magic nigger is the refuge of stability in a turbulent white life. It where Mel Gibson needs to go to be reminded that family after all is everything. Only in movies it seems do large black families sit to have dinner. No matter what the occasion—Every day is thanksgiving day in the Magic Nigger household. And given that the Magic Nigger may show but never reveal, he or she doesn’t even have to be black. Bruce Lee was The Green Hornet’s magic boy for so long that it’s a wonder he ever entered the dragon.

But like every other film idea, this concept was stolen from Literature, dating back to the first magic nigger, Uncle Tom. Uncle Tom has no real flaws or real humanity for that matter, but he feels the conflict of slavery and racism in all of his pulse-less being. Were James Bond an American franchise, Q would have been black. He actually became black in Batman Begins.

Othello, the first and still the most comprehensively real portrait of a black man in “white” literature is still played mostly by white actors in brownface. Othello’s rage is not so much black rage as warrior rage, the anger of a man taught nothing but, who lives by his passions and is doomed by them as well. His murder of Desdemona may be the most sexual moment in the play, but Shakespeare exposes the scene for what it truly is; an act of jealousy, rage and perversely love that sprung from the deepest betrayal. It’s a moment of stark, shocking clarity; a moment that revels in the glory and flaws of truly three-dimensional black hero. We have not seen a black character with so much colour since.

Americans Vs. Brits

Geoffrey Philp has a very interesting blog about why North American readers may not be as open to Caribbean fiction as the British, but I'm not so sure. I've been thinking about this topic for a while, because this was an assumption I made about my own work before it was published. But since publication I have experienced the complete opposite. While Americans from critics to writers to readers have embraced my novel, the Brits have not been so keen. No British publisher would touch the book and the sole Brit review was smarmy and patronising, comparing me to Andrew Salkey. This of course flies in the face of our conception that the British audience is more readily receptive to a Caribbean book.

But I think it is more than that. Older generation Caribbean writers such as Selvon, Naipaul or even Roger Mais were educated and cultured in a British sensibility, whereas writers such as myself came alive through dancehall, alternative rock, hip-hop and Starsky and Hutch. Hell, my book opens with a quote from Captain Beefheart.

I think also that the courage to use dialect came from Twain, Faulkner and Toni Morrison—the Americans and not british writers or English Lit teachers who viewed such a thing with at best bemusement, at worst scorn, hence the slightly patronising tone to Brother man and the continuing belief by readers Jamaican and otherwise that anything in dialect must be a Louise Bennet minstrel show.

Whatever the reason, I've had a better response from Americans than Brits. Go figure.