TUESDAY, OCTOBER 26, 2021
Improving on yesterday's effort: Despite the many awards it has won, we did a lousy job in yesterday's report.
We were discussing a lengthy profile in Sunday's New York Times magazine. We'd call it a highly permissive celebrity profile about an upcoming film.
We're looking forward to seeing the film. On a journalistic basis, we thought the profile was extremely poor.
That said, we did a lousy job critiquing the profile. By the time we were done, our basic point was quite unclear.
In part, we did a lousy job because the profile was flawed in so many ways. Today, let's take a quick look at the part of the profile which initially caught our eye.
The profile was written by Alexandra Kleeman. Her subject was Rebecca Hall, a British actress who is about to release her first film as a director.
Hall's film is an adaptation of Nella Larson's 1929 novel, Passing. Below, you see the way Kleeman's profile began, headline included.
Kleeman's summary of the novel instantly caught our eye. In one respect, it struck us as judgmental, possibly just a bit cruel:
KLEEMAN (10/26/21): The Secret Toll of Racial Ambiguity
When Rebecca Hall read Nella Larsen’s groundbreaking 1929 novel, “Passing,” over a decade ago, she felt an intense, immediate attachment to it. The story seemed to clarify so much that was mysterious about her own identity—the unnameable gaps in her family history that shaped her life in their very absence, the way a sinkhole in the road distorts the path of traffic blocks away.
The novel follows Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, two light-skinned Black women who grew up in the same Chicago neighborhood and shared a friendship complicated by differences in class and social status. When Clare’s father died, she was sent off to live with white relatives, while Irene went on to become firmly ensconced in the vibrant Black artistic and cultural community of 1920s Harlem, wife to a Black doctor and mother to two dark-skinned young boys. One day, while passing for convenience on the rooftop restaurant of a whites-only hotel, Irene is recognized by a beautiful blond woman, who turns out to be Clare—who now not only lives her life as a white woman but is also mother to a white-passing daughter and married to a bigoted man who has no clue about her mixed-race heritage. The friends’ reunion crackles with tension, charged with curiosity, envy and longing.
(Kleeman says that Irene was "passing for convenience" in a restaurant. We assume that means that she was agreeing to be perceived as "white," but only on that one occasion.)
We were struck by Kleeman's summary of the novel. Here's why:
In Kleeman's summary, Irene and Clare are "light-skinned Black women who grew up in the same Chicago neighborhood," presumably during the 1920s (or before). The first possible surprise in the plot would be this:
"When Clare’s father died, she was sent off to live with white relatives."
How many black residents of Chicago at that time had "white relatives" somewhere—white relatives to whose care they could consign their son or daughter?
That struck us as a surprising plot element. Years later, though, it apparently leads to this:
Clare now "lives her life as a white woman." She's "married to a bigoted man who has no clue about her mixed-race heritage."
Also this: Clare is now "mother to a white-passing daughter," whatever that formulation might be taken to mean.
We were struck by some of Kleeman's language—by some of the ideas about "race" her language seems to convey. Let's start with this relatively minor point:
What does it mean when Kleeman says that Clare had a "mixed-race heritage?" We've already been told that Clare is black. What does it mean when we're now told that her "heritage" is "mixed-race?"
That formulation could mean many things. Primarily, we'll guess it means that her bigoted husband doesn't know that her birth family was "black."
That's a fairly minor point. This second point is not:
What can it possibly mean when Kleeman says that Clare's daughter is "white-passing?" Just consider this young person's circumstance:
Presumably, her bigoted father actually is "white." That said, her mother is so light-skinned that everyone believes that she's "white" too.
Unless someone has told her different, the daughter will naturally have this same impression of her mother.
(Just for the record, the odds are good that the bulk of this girl's DNA traces back to Europe.)
In what sense, then, can this "dear daughter beneath the sun" be said to be "white-passing?" If we want to score her mother that way—if we want to adorn her with a scarlet P—why in the world would we want to score the daughter that way too?
Let's review! This darling daughter appears to be "white." Her father appears to be "white," and her mother does too. As far as we know, no one has ever told her that she's isn't "white."
Why then would someone want to call this daughter "white-passing?" Does Kleeman secretly hold to the one-drop rule—to the age-old rule which scores this dear daughter as "black?" Does Kleeman secretly cling to that rule, perhaps without even realizing?
In fairness, this was just a passing throw-away line from Kleeman. We can't tell you what she meant when she penned that description. We can't tell you if her editor asked her what it meant.
We can say that it caught our eye, in part because of its apparent reflexive judgmentalism. Also, because it may seem to suggest that this young woman really was secretly "black," no matter what anyone says. Or maybe she should have gone around telling everyone she was biracial!
We were struck by that puzzling language in Kleeman's second paragraph. As we continued reading, Kleeman turned to a lengthy discussion of her own life and times, but she mainly profiled Rebecca Hall.
In the course of her highly permissive profile, Kleeman let Hall make an array of statements which don't seem to comport with the published record. Fawning journalists frequently perform such services on behalf of celebrities who have products to sell.
(We look forward to seeing Hall's film.)
Yesterday, we wallowed in the vast array of contradictions Kleeman left unchallenged and unclarified. By the time we were done with our attempt to list them all, it wasn't clear, in any way, what our overall point might have been.
Today, we thought we'd return to the puzzling account which first caught our eye in Kleeman's profile of Hall. It strikes us as a reflexively cruel account, but also perhaps as a tribute to the enduring power of "the world the slaveholders made."
Within the American context, the notion that everyone has (belongs to) a race comes to us from that deeply destructive world. Meanwhile, we progressives today!
How deeply we progressives believe in the notion of "race!" How deeply we believe in the idea that everybody has a race, and that we are the ones who have been empowered to tell them what their race—what their "identity"—actually is!
(Within living memory, the liberal project affirmed that there was only one race—the human race. Those days are long, long gone.)
Unfortunately, the concept of "race" lies at the heart of American understandings. It comes to us live and direct from the world the slaveholders made.
Our vastly self-impressed liberal tribe aggressively clings to the concept of "race" in this brave new dystopia. Our thinking is often extremely jumbled, and sometimes cruel, as we insist on retaining this framework.
The Others can see us doing this. On the whole, it isn't a winning look. Quite often, it isn't especially smart.
We were surprised by what Kleeman wrote. Did her editor ask what she meant?
Where you may have seen Hall: We liked Hall in The Town, a 2010 film with a somewhat rank point of view.
We're supposed to root for Hall's character to get together with Ben Affleck, who typically murders a couple of people on his way to her house for their dates.
Why would anyone want Hall's unsuspecting character to get together with him? This point just isn't made real clear in the course of the blood-soaked film.
In fairness, a celebrity was branding himself in that film. It happens every spring. We're asked to accept what we're shown.