Monday, November 09, 2015

A Hole in the Myth

Let's begin with an assertion:  there is a "dominant culture" which describes reality in one very particular and specific way and which casts itself as normative.  Joseph Campbell once said that the myths of other people are stories that they tell to try to make sense of the world; our own myths are, "the way things are."  This is true of the story told by this dominate culture.  It is, simply, reality, and all other expressions of reality are compared to it (always in terms of the ways they do not measure up).

Further, let's stipulate that this dominant culture (which we could also fairly call a dominating or domineering culture) reflects the historic perspective of white, male, land-owning (that is to say, financially secure), well educated, heterosexual, able bodied, males.  This is quite specific.  One could even say limited view of the world, but that's the way dominant cultures tend to work.  The ones who are "at the top of the heap" get to describe what the world is like.  (In part, to be sure, to justify their position at the top of the heap, and also to protect and reinforce it.)

There is nothing all that radical in these assertion, except to those who are so entranced by this story that they truly can't see it for what it is.  There are, I'm afraid, more of these than I would want to believe, yet to many of us -- and certainly to the people with whom I run -- this is a clear truth.  We might call it "institutionalized racism," "white privilege," "sexism," "classism," "ablesim," and all the other isms that exist in our world.

Yet there is a paradox in this assertion, this story, this myth.  There are many, actually, but I want to focus in on one.  In the early days of this century, director Spike Lee coined the term "super-duper magical Negro" to describe a character in movies like The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance.  The "magical Negro" is an African American character in an otherwise Eurocentric movie who comes along and helps the main (white) character through the sharing of his deep wisdom, spirituality, and even, in many cases, his actual mystical, magical powers.  Matthew Hughey describes this figure in a 2009 article in the magazine Social Problems, "Cinethetic Racism: White Redemption and Black Stereotypes in 'Magical Negro' Films:"
"[His] powers are used to save and transform disheveled, uncultured, or broken whites (almost exclusively white men) into competent, successful, and content people within the context of the American myth of redemption and salvation.  It is this feature of the Magical Negro that some people find most troubling.  Although from a certain perspective the character may seem to be showing blacks in a positive light, he is still ultimately subordinate to whites.  He is also regarded as an exception, allowing white America to like individual black people but not black culture."
This character, this trope, is so prevalent that a list on Wikipedia has examples going back to 1946.  Some of the characters listed are no doubt debatable -- Morgan Freeman as "God" in Bruce Almighty and its sequel Evan Almighty, for instance, serves essentially the same function and has many of the same characteristics as George Burns' "God" does in Oh! God.  Yet whether any particular character should or should not be on the list misses the real point -- there is a list!  And the prevalence of this character points to the paradox I'm thinking of -- within the dominant culture there is the implicit awareness that on its own it's not enough.

In Ta-Nehisi Coastes's extraordinary book Between the World and Me he says:
"Even the Dreamers -- lost in their great reverie -- feel it, it is to Billie they reach for in sadness, and Mobb Deep is what they holler in boldness, and Isley they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha is the last sound they hear before dying."
Coates is saying what has long been known even though rarely admitted -- the dominant culture, who he calls "the Dreamers" (those who believe in and are privileged by the "American Dream"), realize that something is missing, theat they are in very real ways lost and in need, and that the missing something that will help in addressing that need can only come from outside itself.

What makes me bring all of this up is a realization that dawned on me recently while watching the new movie The Intern.  Another aspect of the specifics of those who are propped up by and who perpetuate this dominant culture -- along with being white, male, etc., etc. -- is that they are young.  The dominant culture in the United States worships the young and presents the young as being as normative for what it means to be human, as it does well-educated, financially secure, able-bodied, heterosexual white men.

And so we have not only "Magical Negroes" in our collective consciousnesses, but "Magical Old People."  Robert DeNiro's Ben Whittaker is a widowed retiree who is at first dismissed as too old and, thus, insignificant and inconsequential to the hip young people into whose world he gently and quietly enters.  Over the course of the movie, however, this obvious outsider comes to be recognized as a font of wisdom because of the experiences and knowledge he not only holds but embodies -- experiences, knowledge, and wisdom that these financially secure, able bodied, well-educated, straight (as far as we're told), young white people desperately need.  (He even, at one point, gives a feminist pep-talk to our supposedly awake and aware young heroine!)  In keeping with the trope, he comes into their world almost unnoticed and, once his work of salavation is accomplished, he disappears returning whence he came.  The film ends with Anne Hathaway's Jules Ostin discovering that Ben had inexplicably "taken the day off," that he was gone. In the final scene we see that he's returned to the seniors' tai chi class in which we first saw him.  To underline his role as Magical Old Guy, not only is he now no longer nearly comically going through the form, he is able to confidently teach it.  The original veneer of goof has been pulled back to show the guru.

Magical Negro.  Magical Old Guy.  The Magical Gay Best Friend.  Jamie Foxx's Nathaniel Ayers could be seen as an example of the Magical Mentally Ill Guy to Robert Downey, Jr.'s Steve Lopez in The Soloist.  Over and over again the myth of the dominant culture reveals within it the paradoxical myth that it is in need of salvation from the very peoples it denigrates.  And while the narrative device of the Magical Ostracized Outsider is offensive in so many ways, it may also be a sign of hope if seen for what it is: a recognition and acknowledgement that the heap is fundamentally and foundationally unstable, unable to maintain itself.  If understood widely enough, this myth may help to bring down the Myth it has been intended to support.


PS -- I will write more in an upcoming post about Ta-Nehesi Coates's book Between the World and Me, but for now let me simply say that Toni Morrison could not be more correct when she calls it, "required reading."  I have never read anything like it -- ever -- and I truly wish that every (white) man, woman, and child in the United States could be exposed to its both beautifully and brutally honest truth.

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arthurrashap said...

First, let me say to you, Wik, and to whomever reads these posts (that I find truly exceptional and deserving of WIDE distribution, discussion, and when suggested implementation) that this is a venue to open the door and walk into some profound ideas and topics that truly deserve to be vetted.

In reading this one, I am finding some parallelism with Dr. Carson's recent book: "A More Perfect Union." Although I just started what is striking (and what I believe is a shared approach - dare I say 'belief'?) is that there is a basic 'take' that we (yup, us'n in these States that united) are special in that our founding documents "protect 'we the people' from those who attempt to enhance their own position and power at the expense of others." They also talk about our leaders being accountable to us ordinary citizens. Hmmmm.

Yes, it is myth spinning going on in the selection of our leaders - myths spun and promulgated through the millions/billions advanced by those who really have no interest (ha ha) in promoting their own position and power.
Arthur Rashap

RevWik said...

Thanks for the kind words, Arthur. Nice to know that someone's reading -- and appreciating -- these posts.

What I find most interesting in your response is both the very idea of "we the people." It's interesting to ponder just what "we" we are talking about. The Constitution was pretty clear that "we" was landowning white men. Americans of African descent, and Americans with two X chromosomes, were explicitly not part of the "we." In today's political rhetoric we can hear all sorts of people being excluded from the "we" as they are contrasted with "Americans" or "the American people." You can see it, too, when people decry "the government" as though it is something other than "the people." (Although I will say, Arthur, that your distinction between "leaders" and "us ordinary citizens" is helpful in this.)

What would it -- will it -- take for "we the people" to be all of us? Can the "promissory note," to use Dr. King's great phrase, of our founding documents' declaration of the ideal of freedom ever be fully be "cashed"? It is certainly due ...