The Artificial White Man

Essays on Authenticity


By Stanley Crouch

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In this penetrating collection of original essays, legendary gadfly and esteemed critic Stanley Crouch tackles the notion on authenticity-what it is, what it isn’t, and what we make of it, for good or for bad. While the question of who’s the real deal and who isn’t has now seeped into nearly every corner of American culture, nowhere does the idea of authenticity hold greater sway than in the realm of ethnicity. In this bracing collection of original essays, Crouch brings all his rhetorical skills to bear on this animating-and polarizing-idea, and investigates the motives behind those who present themselves as authentic, those who claim to expose the inauthentic, and what this all tells us about the state of the arts-from the vaulted halls of literary fiction to the arena of soft drink-shilling pop stars-in America today. For Crouch, this is not simply an academic exercise, but a summation of our peculiar historical moment. Living in a time in which much of the conventions that defined and limited people’s futures-whether it be race, class, or sex-have been obliterated, we’re both liberated from bigotries and yet-still-facing profound disillusionment. As influences come and go at breakneck speed, as traditions are remade and re-imagined, it has become hard to tell which metaphorical end is up. The result, Crouch argues, is not only a national paranoia that someone may have put something over on us-i.e. that we have too often been duped into believing that the counterfeit is authentic-but also a deep retrenchment of imagination and artistic expression, from white and black alike. As he promises in his introduction: “This book is an argument with all of that, however sympathetic it might be to the search for alternatives to our disappointments. It hopes to present, through affirmation, a new form of rebellion in our time of cosmetic dissent.”


Also by Stanley Crouch
Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk (with Playthell Benjamin)
One Shot Harris: The Photographs of Charles "Teenie" Harris
Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives
Notes of a Hanging Judge
The All-American Skin Game, or, The Decoy of Race
Don't the Moon Look Lonesome

To my daughter

Blues to Be Authentic
I gave this volume the title The Artificial White Man because it implies the dominant theme: authenticity. Subjects such as Quentin Tarantino, Michael Jackson, John Singleton, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Duke Ellington, Saul Bellow, David Shields (the subject of the title essay), Alfred Appel, and contemporary American fiction allow me the necessary opportunities to investigate my subject. Some are celebrated, some are spanked, some are celebrated and spanked.
In a number of chapters I attack those who present themselves as authentic or claim to expose the inauthentic while actually pushing forward a high- or low-quality version of counterfeit. But I do not think the reasons for our obsession with authenticity are simple, nor do I misapprehend the complexity of the moment in which we live on this earth. Ours is a technological era that often defines itself and achieves commercial success by continuing to do a better job at making the unreal seem true. Due to the many-layered rebellion against the pervasiveness of the unreal, we live in a period of great disillusionment; as idols crash, conventions are rejected that upheld various forms of bigotry arriving in the areas of class, ethnicity, religion, color, and sex. The result is that part of our contemporary national paranoia expresses itself in the belief that someone may have put something over on us, that we have too often been duped into believing that the counterfeit is the authentic.
In the bush or somewhere up in somebody's mountains, we assume—or hope—that there are people whose sense of life has not been totally encroached on by the boxed, electronic shadow world of television or the Internet universe in which cyberspace seems as real to many as God, angels, and heaven are to an atheist. If that purportedly innocent existence is what some might consider luck, we haven't had any on this soil in a very, very long time. There is hardly a space of one hundred square miles that has not been defined and redefined by the callous and inspiring nature of modernity.
We have been modern for so long that authenticity is largely a meaningless term, though there are distinct ethnic styles that don't quite tell us what we think they do. One reason is that this nation—long, long ago—switched tracks from the local to the express. So influences come and go at very high speeds. Traditions are remade and abandoned or reimagined, sometimes for the better, sometimes—which is where the blues always makes its move—for the worst. Our country is some kind of a mongrel that is spiritually a chameleon but always remains a bastard. And you can be sure that starting as an American bastard in a world where former European bastards have family lines long enough to make them arrogant is another reason why being authentic might be something of a recurring problem.
Across our democratic vista, for all of its tragic tales, we have seen that the ultimate truth of humanity is fairly simple: no qualities of any sort that have to do with intelligence or will or spirit can be assumed on the basis of our favorite lines of demarcation. Color, sex, religion, class, and point of geographic origin are just more blanks that, even at close range, don't leave powder burns on the target board of Americana. The individual still has to sign on the dotted line for anything to make sense or become specific. (Even though he was not an American, the great Borges, an Argentine, trumped Hemingway in that area of recognition, as I show in "The Novel as Blues Suite.")
The elite version of authenticity used to begin above but now has been discredited. Nothing has survived the holocaust of close, close scrutiny, not government, not business, not religion, not ethnicity, not the upper class, not the family unit, not parenting, not adolescence, not childhood, nothing at all. With the fall of the high, the energy from below has been elevated in our reimagining of traditions. A purity has been projected onto the bottom and that projection has risen to a great influence. Americans now fear, with greater intensity than ever, becoming bloodless, stiff, "uncool." (David Shields is a notable example.) It is very difficult to come in contact with what is considered cool—or achieve the status that comes of surviving the harsher realities of life—if one is born above. The assault on middle-class life in our television shows and our movies allows us to recognize that we are constantly being signaled about authenticity. A blue, despairing cry is coming at us from behind the trends of extreme hairdos, piercings, ethnic getups, aggressively bad taste, nose rings, tattoos, and the fashion collages that draw so badly and so freely from the worlds of the primitive, science fiction, and street gang posturing.
On the lower frequencies of what we call urban America, young men who hope to become hip-hop stars risk imprisonment or death in order to get "street credentials," meaning hoodlum authenticity. So we are now at the place where moving from the inauthentic to the authentic can become a rite of passage allowing a person to become a brand who wears a seal of approval, like the purple stamp on meat that passes inspection.
This book is an argument with all of that, however sympathetic it might be to the search for alternatives to our disappointments. One position it takes is that empty-headed appropriation or assumed membership in a besieged elite, like the "white world," is far different from inspired reactions to influences from outside of one's class and ethnic conventions. It is also true in my mind that ethnic identity, however slippery it can be, should not remove complexity from the natural history of Americana but add more distinctions, a greater variety of nuance, some perspectives that allow the insider and the outsider to be seen more clearly. I hope to present, through unsentimental affirmation, a new form of rebellion in our time of cosmetic dissent. While it is obvious that I do not deny the distinct styles of different ethnic groups, I believe that these preoccupations have made it harder for some people to seek their own individuality because they feel that they should follow a recipe for how to be an acceptable member of their ethnic group. This has had a bad effect on our fiction, since there are ethnic characters that too many writers do not feel free enough to try and imagine into their work. (Besides helping give thematic form to the book, this is why William Faulkner and Go Down, Moses are referred to more than once.) This gussied-up version of segregation also misses the importance of certain domestic art forms because they have not been seen as authentic high art. It has gotten us into a big, fat, spreading mess, and I hope that this collection gives a sizable helping hand to getting us out of it.

Baby Boy Blues
DIRECTOR AND SCREENWRITER JOHN SINGLETON'S recent Baby Boy, which was both loved and hated, arrived at a unique moment in our time. In areas of popular entertainment and even in supposedly serious criticism, the humanity of black people is under attack. It is a period of deep crisis in which nuanced discussion is difficult. Nothing about black Americans can be discussed in a vacuum and little that looks at things seriously can escape the past. The many thousands of bigoted denigrations that went unchallenged for so long can now be used as references to dismiss a work of art—especially if that work is critical of any manifestations in contemporary or traditional Afro-American culture.
When Singleton set out to take a critical look at those strutting young Los Angeles black men who father children by various women and make little or no effort to support them, he was stepping into what has long been a serious mess. Anyone who goes down into the darker ranges of the Afro-American world faces danger, since what one finds down there can so easily be placed within the dead world of the stereotype. In that world, characters exist only as lifeless puppets pulled into action for the perpetuation of poisonous myths about the unchanging essence of a purportedly inferior group.
We see the complexity of the troubles everywhere, with and without black cooperation. Images of black youth seen on MTV, BET, or VH1, as the most obvious examples, are not far removed from those D. W. Griffith used in Birth of a Nation, where Reconstruction Negroes were depicted as bullying, hedonistic buffoons ever ready to bloody somebody. This is the new minstrelsy. The neo-Sambo is sturdily placed in our contemporary popular iconography. He can be seen, for instance, mugging or scowling in Trick Daddy's "I'm a Thug," where gold teeth, drop-down pants, and tasteless jewelry abound. Then there is the fast-tailed hussy, rolling her rump at the camera or challenging some anonymous man to satisfy her in Missy's latest. These videos are created primarily for the material enrichment of black entertainers, producers, and directors, not present-day whites, who would be run off the planet if they—like the creators of nineteenth-century minstrelsy—were responsible for the images, the ideas, and the content.
It is against this backdrop of dehumanization that a brave work such as Baby Boy must be assessed. On the surface, it seems no more than an exploitation of people who were struggling to find themselves, or had no interest in going beyond where they were, or seemed unconcerned about becoming anything more than what they already were. But what Singleton actually tried to do cannot easily be made light of, particularly since there are so few black films bent on probing serious subjects. That is because black characters, regardless of the color of the screenwriter, rarely exist for artistic purposes. They tend to fulfill some fantasy or some craven attempt to take advantage of the fact that black moviegoers constitute such a large percentage of ticket buyers. Such characters are just props, as the writer Clayton Riley once called them.
Singleton is after more than props. He questions the mores of his characters and shows young black men caught in ritual behavior that is about arrested development on one hand and bitter rage at their limitations on another. They listen to no one, but rather than make their own rules, they follow unproductive conventions based in getting high, impregnating women, and pretending to be in control of adult or violent worlds that press them to the canvas at will. At one point, with a tragic depth one would find exceptional in any American film, a character prays that he and his buddy be shown the way but, if they cannot be given a direction, the young man asks God to "forgive us for being lost."
That sense of life gives the film its depth, its sense of tragedy, of violence, of murder, of rape, of passing on the bloody gauntlet of abuse, of girls who become mothers before they become women and struggle with sons who are males but not men. We see onetime teenage mothers trying to get their grown sons out of their houses and into lives where personal responsibility is normal, not rare. Singleton gives us men who once followed the dark tracks of the thug life but finally got themselves together. They find it almost impossible to explain to these young guys that they do not have to repeat a stupid cycle in which nothing is proved and little is learned—other than how dumb the whole hoodlum stroke was in the first place.
There is even a The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance morality; it accepts the killing of a young, murderous monster as a harsh rite of passage. This makes the community a better place to be by permanently removing one more snake. Though the protagonist—who is traumatized immediately following the murder—is not haunted by the killing when we last see him, director John Ford taught us that one day the murder will return to the front of his brain and he will recall it as the tragic moment when he rose above where he began, when he learned the cost of living among armed young men who use real guns as if they were cap pistols.
Still, a tight focus on such people that did not include a more comprehensive picture of black Los Angeles was seen as having no value in certain quarters. A good number of well-to-do black people considered the film an insult and proof that, as one magazine editor said to me, "John Singleton, with all of his success and his new address among the Hollywood crew, doesn't know any more about those people now than anybody else. He is just as much an outsider. That is why the writer I assigned to do a piece about the film decided not to write anything after a screening. It was a waste of time on something as worthless as that."
Others thought the film was pornographic. They did not recognize that the erotic scenes—unlike sexual minstrelsy—reveal aspects of the psychological identities of the participants, making them much more than bodies performing intimate acts. The scenes can trick us into believing that as long as a guy from that background can erotically satisfy a gal he has mistreated, his transgressions will be forgiven. One unexpected scene takes place when the major character—who is a true hound—discovers, almost in the middle of the act, that he does not want to have sex with anyone other than the young woman who has paid her dues to win his faithfulness. Singleton even has a moment when a single mother is about to be raped but the presence of her protesting infant son elicits unexpected compassion from the rapist. Determined not to let his thug mask drop, he calls the child a dirty name and storms off.
Those are the kinds of things that make Baby Boy special. Its shortcomings begin in the beginning, when a discussion of black male behavior is heard in a voice-over. The words are from Francis Cress Welsing, an intellectual buffoon of the first order, whose color theories almost justify the term "reverse racism." Her thoughts, taken from the dubious Isis Papers, explain how black males can be infantilized by a racist society. This is pushed home by the image of the lead, pop singer and model Tyrese Gibson, fully grown but still in the womb. Some of the cutting seems clumsy and there is a secondary tale about a brother who was murdered that is never made clear. With a picture of Tupac Shakur overlooking the bedroom of the lead character, Singleton makes clear what the best of our black filmmakers have been saying for quite some time—those who model themselves on the thug life advocated by the Shakurs become dangerous not only to themselves but to everyone else. This is far beyond a racial point because it speaks to codes of living, which are always the subjects of comprehensive narrative art.
Baby Boy therefore stands tall in times like these and makes a very strong third part of the trilogy Singleton began with his first film, Boyz in the Hood (1991). In that first effort, Singleton went far beyond the skin-deep renditions of certain segments of black youth and their troubles on the street. Without its success, it is hard to imagine Menace II Society getting financing and going on to establish directors Allen and Albert Hughes as hot talents who could bring humanity to people so easily reduced to cartoonish, amoral miscreants in other popular contexts.
There are other problems that Singleton has to face because he, like every serious black creator in every arena, has to address the fact that there is a large black audience for the kind of drivel that so many others protest. It is not as though the new minstrelsy does not have black followers, legions of them. When his finest work thus far, Rosewood, was released, the empty-headed Booty Call came out and took the money off the table.
Rosewood was a major American film because it, on an epic scale, moved the Afro-American experience into the mythic arenas in which John Ford cast his work, where the real and the mythological stood together, where authenticity and poetic exaggeration reinforced each other, where real characters and archetypes spoke to one another and worked together. Never, in the history of American film, had southern racist hysteria been shown so clearly. Color, class, and sex were woven together on a level that Faulkner would have appreciated. For once, the parallels between Afro-American and European Jewish experience, so often cited but so clumsily discussed, were brought home. We saw different levels and degrees of racism as Singleton got his white actors to become people, not symbols. There was also a staggering rendition of how one act of dishonesty, in a moment of near madness, could bring down a holocaust rooted in envy and resentment. It was a high point in contemporary cinema.
Rosewood showed us what John Singleton can do when he has the freedom to fully explore his talents and the identification and alienation that continue to tie our society in knots. Someday we may see someone carry through what Spike Lee attempted in Bamboozled, which shows the close alignment between the black profiteers who become millionaires through the new minstrelsy and those who would use those new minstrel images to justify the kind of bigotry that our American art, at its very best, lines up against, choosing powerhouse poetry over propaganda. That someone just might be John Singleton.

Segregated Fiction Blues


From truly ambitious films to thrillers or calculated summer blockbusters, from high-quality television drama to air-headed situation comedies and thirty-second commercial spots, the mass media recognize something in American life that our fiction rarely does. The impression we get from the media is the very same one that just about everybody in the world with access to a television saw during the O.J. Simpson trial. America is now a country with variously positioned ethnic groups whose members function with and against each other, and with and against themselves. If you take a remarkable film like City of Hope (1991), written and directed by John Sayles, you get a far from simple picture of a big town. It contains groups on both sides of the color line that have histories, political ambitions, strengths, shortcomings, ambitions, enmities, and so on and on. If you compare the American novel to what Sayles was attempting, one can only say that, in almost all cases, those who chose to express themselves in that form are now are so far behind mass media that one can only be startled.
As Tom Wolfe's "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast" laid it down fifteen ago, fiction editors at publishing houses gave up expecting to receive books about this roiling, ever more surprising society. Writers chose not to look at where they were and ask themselves if they could decipher the spirit and the contexts of their time. There was plenty of literary theory to back them up. One could be academically up-to-date by deciding to turn away from one's own time. This is just as true now as it was then. Writers have decided that the big sweep of American life out there is something that should be either avoided or broken up into ethnic, religious, sexual, class, and regional franchises. In other words: If I don't write about you, you won't write about me. I'll stick with my favorite subject—myself—and I suggest you do the same.
The results have been both dull and dismal. Evasiveness is the order of the day. Over the years Wolfe has been attacked for the kind of literary style he preferred rather than the point he made. He has been dismissed as a "social realist" and in one publication was compared to those in Russia who choked off all creativity with ideological demands. We should not be surprised to see so much horse manure flying from the pitcher's mound because the observations Wolfe made were just a bit too heavy. One could choose to write about this nation in any style, from social realist to avant-garde, and still take up Wolfe's challenge. His point is the issue, and it continues to prove itself true. In a time when we see so many people of every color from such a varied range of backgrounds moving across the American scene in the worlds of politics, business, entertainment, science, sports, crime, the military, and just about everything else, American writers of fiction still spend most of their time looking in the opposite direction. They choose to ignore the epic nature of our society as it continues to fight free of its traditional limitations and expectations, or as it tries doctrinaire remedies that are nearly as bad for the body politic as its diseases. While no one has the power or should have the right to tell a novelist or a short story writer what he or she has to do, one should not be afraid to say that we do not expect American writers, for the most part, to go beyond themselves. We settle for a crisis born of cowardice, which has determined the convention.
"Cowardice" is the only word that fits because contemporary American writers are hardly lacking in experience or information about other people. This is undeniable. Writers may well have gone to integrated colleges with all manner of people, some of whom have remained their friends over the years. They may live in neighborhoods populated with various kinds of Americans, a few of them friends whose husbands know their husbands, whose wives know their wives, whose kids go to school with their kids, sleep over, party with them, and, as part of a conspiracy to have the very best time possible, go to the same summer camps. These writers may make it their business to associate themselves with at least one version of those organizations bent on chopping down more trees in the poison forest of ethnic, sexual, religious, and class bigotry. Some of their best friends might be—you name it. But when they sit down to write about this big country, they punk out, far, far more often than not.
That is now the norm: punking out. Hiding under the bed. Walking beneath a flag of white underwear stained fully yellow by liquefied fear. Like all forms of cowardice in our moment, there is a self-serving psychological process tailor-made for this particular variation. The lack of aesthetic gumption is remade into a smugness that eventually grants itself a pedigree in narcissism. As life in America becomes an ever more intriguing mix of styles, relationships, alliances, and even combinations of cuisine, things have gotten so mucked up and segregated in the world of literature that one does not expect American writers to tell us about anything other than themselves, their mono-ethnic neighborhoods, their own backgrounds, the narrowest definitions of the classes from which they come, their erotic plumbing and its meaning, how much or how little melanin is in their skin, and so forth.
We do not expect most American fiction to do anything approaching what one sees in the best of dramatic television, which should give any writer a sense of just how much more interesting our human relations have become over the past forty years. At any conventional New York literary party (which is what almost all of them are), if you bring up the subject of something interesting that you saw on television to a writer of American fiction or some supposed expert on the subject, a favorite response is, "Oh, I don't watch television," as if the disclaimer were a badge of intellectual and cultural honor. Given the way it is right now, they would do well to follow that up with, "I don't look at America either." Are we supposed to accept that?
The actual reason we have so little bravery and so little of a special kind of brilliance in contemporary American fiction could easily be the result of the public flogging William Styron took from Negroes for his Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), which told the fictionalized story of the slave who led a bloody and squelched revolt in South Carolina in 1831. That Styron was a white Southerner and his subject far removed from his own world (and that of anyone else who wasn't alive in the 1830s) was something of a risk, but it wasn't the first such risk taken by a talented white American writer from the South. His most prominent forebear was William Faulkner. In 1940, with Go Down, Moses, Faulkner proved that a white writer from below the Mason-Dixon line (and up to his neck in redneck bile) could do the job to a fare-thee-well. Faulkner not only stepped across the color line a number of times in the book, but he also succeeded in portraying different kinds of Negroes, none of whom fit easily into anybody's stereotypes about poor colored folks down South. He threw down what might be considered the ultimate challenge, a gauntlet with steam rising from it.
Styron was no Faulkner. His book was not good, which may have been one of the reasons that James Baldwin, who was living with the writer and his family while the novel was being created, loved it so and said that it expressed his own feelings with such accuracy that he could have played Styron's Turner in a movie. How now, brown cow? Styron's Nat Turner was an unconvincing Freudian mess of self-hatred, sexual confusion, and panting after just about any white girl's panties—a perfect Baldwin character. That the real Turner was, like John Brown, a brave loon with a good cause that collapsed into bloody slaughter meant that he could have been the inspiration for a first-class and terrifying novel of moral outrage paced by delusions of messianic importance. The circumstances and the context of Turner's brutal revolt were pretty obvious. After all, getting one's throat cut is an occupational hazard of enslaving or terribly oppressing people. Demonic and indifferent treatment from the top can breed demons at the bottom, which the French and Russian revolutions made pretty clear.
A truly important novel might have been written if Styron possessed enough commanding imagination to provide his readers with bracing depictions of the antebellum demons on both ends—the deadly interplay between the institution of slavery and the folk world of superstition and violent visions out of which Turner rose with such confidence in the correctness of


On Sale
Mar 25, 2009
Page Count
256 pages
Civitas Books

Stanley Crouch

About the Author

Stanley Crouch is a columnist, novelist, essayist, and television commentator. He has served since 1987 as an artistic consultant at Lincoln Center and is a co-founder of the department known as Jazz at Lincoln Center. He is the author of Notes of a Hanging Judge and The Artificial White Man, among other titles. He lives in New York City.

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