2021 Gloria Naylor in the Archives Symposium, November 5-7 at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA Panel: Rewriting The Women of Brewster Place
In a January 23, 2006 interview with Ed Gordon, Gloria Naylor discusses her experiences as a targeted individual (TI) of government sponsored electronic surveillance, psychotronic harassment, mind-control, gang-stalking, and ‘non-lethal’ invisible torture techniques depicted in her book, 1996 (2005) (Gordon 2006). The “fictionalized memoir,” a term Naylor uses to describe the genre bending account that blurs the line between actuality and reality, situates the fictionalized Naylor at her vacation home on the South Carolina coastal barrier island of St. Helena. In an absurd twist of fate warped by a culture of racist misogyny, Naylor becomes the subject of a federal black ops investigation when her neighbor’s cat dies after eating bait poison an exterminator lays out underneath Naylor’s home to get rid of a tree rat nuisance. The emotionally fragile neighbor’s brother is an Assistant Deputy Director at the NSA (National Security Agency). After a call to her brother and to the local Sheriff’s office in which the unhinged White woman, Eunice, reports “strange noises in the middle of the night,” alluding to illegal activities, the plot is set. By the end of the second chapter, Naylor is profiled as “some kind of radical” Black writer who “wears dreadlocks” and suspected of drug dealing activities to explain how she can afford to purchase a home located on some of the most exclusive real estate on the island (20-21).
At one point in the brief five-minute interview, Naylor, responding to Gordon’s comment about the book’s exposition of how her “tranquility is ruined,” disavows a political art to make a claim of potential immunity from government surveillance. Identifying herself as a fiction writer who is apolitical, she is unable to fathom a reason for the violations to her privacy. In this account, her knowledge of government surveillance relies on the political framing of “[B]lack nationalist organizations” destroyed by COINTELPRO (the U.S. Counter-Intelligence Program which officially existed on record from 1957 to 1971), which she witnesses as an historical spectator (see NPR interview recording 1:35-2:40; Churchill & Vander Wall 1988, 1990 xii). How are we to understand this apparent turn away from the political art that informs her aesthetic—the Black Arts Movement (of the late 1960’s to mid-1970’s) and Black Feminism and Black Women’s literary movements (most prominent in the mid-1970’s through the 1980’s)—when she has in the past publicly identified herself as a cultural nationalist?
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Gloria Naylor Interview with Ed Gordon, NPR, January 23, 2006
II. The Politics of Protecting Black Women
For Naylor, who in a 1992 film interview with Matteo Bellinelli identifies herself as a feminist and “cultural nationalist,” militancy about her ethnic heritage as an African American is existentially linked to an experience of racialized gendered embodiment “that sprung from that peculiar institution of slavery” (Montgomery 107). Naylor’s writing evolves out of a cultural lexicon forged from centuries of survival against racial subjugation and systematic death and oppression of a group of peoples whose lives were stolen and rendered both commodities and surplus labor in the building and expansion of U.S. Empire. Cornel West has eloquently articulated this Black cultural inheritance as a survival resource “to ward off the nihilistic threat…of hopelessness, meaninglessness, and lovelessness” that continues to plague what Naylor, referring specifically to hip hop/rap, calls “the locked-in underclass” (West 23; Montgomery; Bellinelli). The emphasis on a Black underclass in relation to cultural production is significant, Tricia Rose imparts in writing on “the class-related dynamics of [B]lack oppression” in Public Enemy’s music video, “Night of the Living Baseheads,” because the “language of the subordinated groups’ hidden texts” conveys a more nuanced depiction of a Black life targeted by government sanctioned police surveillance and economic deprivation (Rose 119-20).
Sharon Lewis and Ama S. Wattley observe in the introduction to their collection of critical essays exploring Naylor’s narration of U.S. political economy through the interrelated facets of class, race, gender, and sexuality that perhaps more than any other Black American novelist of her generation, Naylor’s fiction deals with the complexity of a Black existence defined by capital. They point specifically to Naylor’s comment during a conversation with Nikki Giovanni that “every nation marches on the shoulders of its merchants, and Black Americans have gotten into a service economy…They will be the new drones, to replace the scriveners of Dicken’s time” (Lewis & Wattley 4; Montgomery 170). This remark on the commodification and fungibility of Black labor emerges within their conversation about the Million Man March and the Nation of Islam’s self-determination strategy as an alternative to an integrationist standard that has failed to end racial inequality and ameliorate Black suffering as a whole. The reference to Black Americans as the new drones in a post-Civil Rights/Black Power era of U.S. empire is all the more profound when we consider that Aristotle in the Politics argues that the automata (robot or drone) is the only thing that could replace a slave because it is the kind of thing that a slave is (Devecka 10). In the Bellinelli interview, Naylor describes an ideological split among “Black activists” that goes back to the inception of Black public life and appears most clearly in the political fragmentation between two opposing visions, which she describes as Martin Luther King Jr.’s integrationism and Malcolm X’s separatism; and argues that even the seemingly Black cosmopolitanism of New York City is a “prime example” of a failed integrationist standard that has been not only economically devastating but psychologically unhealthy and done nothing to change the subhuman status of Black Americans (Montgomery 108).
Patricia Hill Collins’ work on the politics of Black cultural nationalism in the post-Civil Rights/Black Power eras, specifically the period between 1965 and 1984 defined as the ‘hip hop generation,’ analyzes “the shift from a color-conscious racism that relied on strict racial segregation to a seemingly colorblind racism that promised equal opportunities yet provided no lasting avenues for African American advancement” (2-3). Describing the features of this ‘new’ disorienting colorblind racism, Collins points to the failure of an effective Black politics to confront the cruelty and exploitation of the greedy open market capitalism of neoliberal globalization and considers a phenomenological effect of its racist paranoia —the vanishing quality of Blackness, “simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility” (7). This parabolic Blackness is intensified by a heightened post-9/11 nationalism continuously revitalized through “the popular culture industry,” which exports distorted images of Black superstar athletes and rap artists alongside war images of the U.S. Empire’s military domination in Islamic countries like Afghanistan and Iraq (8). Collins echoes Naylor’s concern about the failure of racial integration and the devastating burdens of that failure borne by Black Americans and those groups constructed as Black, particularly for disregarded poor working-class Black communities. Food deprivation, substandard healthcare and housing, failing schools, and disproportionate rates of unemployment and illnesses like HIV/AIDS impact the life expectancy and life chances of Black Americans. (7-12) Ironically, Collins finds that in the context of this new colorblind racism, “as politics has seemingly shifted into the terrain of identity and culture” and sentiments around issues concerning race have grown increasingly more conservative, Black cultural nationalism has thrived in areas concerning values and identity but abandoned many of its socialist “class-based initiatives” and Black feminist thought that shaped its foundation, ultimately serving as agitprop for a conservative misogynist agenda exploited by white supremacist tendency (11-12).
It is within this context that we might understand Naylor’s disorienting language of cultural convention and non-provocation—her disavowal of a political aesthetic (to explain a potential immunity from government sponsored, anti-Black surveillance and counter-terrorism measures)—as a slippage back into an adherence that Richard Iton describes as the normalization priority of Black politics and practices since the Cold War. In an era in which American liberalism sought some semblance of an integrated ‘body politic’ to achieve internal coherence against external threat, an anxiety driven acculturation of cultural heterodoxy achieves a “logarithmic effect” which functions to coordinate all “progressive and transformative proposals,” to correspond with an acceptable “logical matrix” of Black public that maintains the status quo (31-32). Iton argues that within the culturopolitical splitting of modernity, the artist-activist, transgressing the cultural-political social division, poses a threat to an already alienated and reified subjectivity in maintenance of the public-private realm enforced by the cultural norms and boundaries (race, class, gender, sexuality, ableism) of nation state; in effect denaturalizing the splitting and preventing a reincorporation of surplus into an imaginary integrated citizenship (14, 30, 32). Similarly, Collins offers that the transnational art-activist space of Black cultural feminism should be understood as a “fluid and often contested border zone” between multiple identities, ideologies, and class positions (Collins 153). The space of the Black artist-activist is not neutral. As Juliana Spahr argues—building on the scholarship of Frances Stonor Saunders, Mary Helen Washington, William J. Maxwell and others—when we take seriously that African decolonization movements have a substantive impact on Black literary movements in the U.S. in the 1960’s and early 1970’s it is not improbable that “the idea that there should be in Africa a form of English-language literary production that is recognizable in the West as literature is something that CIA controlled on multiple fronts” (Spahr 21).
At the end of the interview with Gordon, Naylor is asked about skeptics who are going to say, “why would the government follow you? What interest would they have…Here’s a woman who’s simply, underline, paranoid.” Likening the assault on her mind to rape, mind rape (or “menticide,” to use a term coined by Dutch psychiatrist, Joost Meerloo), Naylor analogizes it to the rape of a child who may never be believed by some of the parents that her uncle has raped her (Gordon 2:55-3:41, Dimsdale 64). Naylor had dealt seriously with the issue of rape denial in The Women of Brewster Place, in the chapter about Lorraine and Theresa, a lesbian couple. As a hypodiegetic folded into the story of “The Two” at Brewster Place, Ben, a barely functioning alcoholic and the housing project’s superintendent, is haunted by the guilt of having blindly watched while his wife prostitutes their physically disabled teenage daughter out to the white landlord to safeguard the family’s position as tenant farmers. A symbolic figure of emasculated Black patriarchy, Ben’s role as a husband and father requires self-deception based on the denial of his raped daughter’s plea for help (152).
Naylor’s own disavowal of her Black cultural nationalist feminist politics and her role as an artist-activist might also be considered in these terms, as an expression of what Darlene Clark Hine defines as a “culture of dissemblance”: “a cult of secrecy” perfected by Black women who created “the appearance of disclosure, or openness about themselves or their feelings, while actually remaining an enigma” as a mode of survival against racist misogyny, classism and inter-/intra-communal violence (Hine 915). This form of embodied psychic protection often results in “a self-imposed invisibility” that is inimical to equality and self-actualization. But, as Hine argues, this “secret undisclosed persona” could allow Black women to function more effectively through the private/public realms of domesticity and politics (915-16). Hine cites the rape scene in Women of Brewster Place and similar depictions of violence in Black women’s writings as key to understanding this motivation for hiddenness as a means of self-preservation (912-13).
If I had more time, here, I would also discuss Sami Schalk’s anniversary essay on Hine’s foundational article and its relation to PTSD (post-traumatic stressed disorder) and its disabling effects. There, Schalk discusses the work of The National Black Women’s Health Project (now The National Black Women’s Health Imperative) and its “holistic, justice-based approach to health.” I was amazed to discover in the archive what seems like an unpublished interview that Naylor conducts with the organization’s trailblazing founder, Byllye Avery, which I will return to in my dissertation project.
III. (cutting—) edge
Rape & Terrorism
Rape is understood as a form of terrorism in Women of Brewster Place. This is especially clear in the way Naylor locates power and violence in relation to silence and speech. Making the distinction, Laura Tanner refers to Hannah Arendt’s theory of power and violence in On Violence. For Arendt, violence, by whatever means, is a destruction that can never be controlled. It is inherently “arbitrary,” unstable, and its actualization leads to additional destruction with unanticipated consequences (Tanner, 29; Arendt, 4). Unlike violence, true power operates collectively within communities and without tools or instrumentalization and therefore can not be manipulated by special interests or groups acting outside the institution (Arendt, 46). A totalitarian rule of government “whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis—the secret police and its net of informers” (50).
Even apart from the rape of Lorraine, Naylor delineates the destructive actions of C.C. Baker and his gang as “indecent” and detrimental to the community. Mattie, the matriarch of Brewster Place, remarks in a tenants meeting that she has called on police (in this instance, a proxy for authorized institutional power) “a dozen times about C.C. Baker and them boys hanging in that alley, smoking them reefers, and robbing folks” (140). Naylor is commenting on the unofficial violence that operates under the guise of official state power for dispossessed and isolated Black communities. As the Public Enemy song, “911 Is A Joke,” expresses: “They don’t care ‘cause they stay paid anyway.” In Mama Day, Naylor approaches this as a matter of cultural inheritance, which she conceptualizes in terms of “cultural territory” (102).
This scene—where Naylor’s interlocutoring characters have divergent overlapping and competing perspectives at the moment of sighting (to invoke a Toni Cade Bambara concept) ‘The Two’ lesbian partners (Teresa and Lorrain), who fit all the “tropes of middle-class conformity”—is a prism into the multiplicity of Black life in general and Black queer desire more specifically; and the violence that permeates every facet of Black existence in the U.S.. In challenging solipsistic thinking about Black identity and embracing a pluralistic love ethic reflective of many different forms of desire, Naylor rejects the narrowly defined prescriptions of Black heteronormative masculinity already marginalized within a neoliberalism dominated by white patriarchy (Anita August, 37-40).
Naylor’s situating of Lorraine’s rape in the interval between the queer nightclub and Ben’s sub-ground, basement level apartment, requiring her to “cut through the alley” to avoid the possibility of being seen by her partner, “Tee” (Teresa), waiting in the window for her return, disrupts the heroic form of the American epic novel tradition typical of writers like Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Ralph Ellison (168). Tanner describes how Naylor cuts the ‘tie’ that binds women to the symbolic order of white heteropatriarchy. Although Lorraine’s pleas with C.C. and the other rapists in the gang are eventually silenced by a crumpled, “dirty paper bag…stuffed into her mouth,” the screams that push out of her face—“breaking through her corneas out into the air”…past the flesh…“vibrating back into her brain”…“shaking lifeless the cells that nurtured her memory”—resist the dissociation of an aestheticized violence, and “succeed[ ] in communicating the victim’s embodied experience of rape” (Tanner, 30-1; Naylor, 170-1).
Challenging the biopsychosocial model of Cartesian and Lockean metaphysics, Naylor’s description of an embodied cellular pain, resonant in the stomach and central nervous system–which Lorraine “screamed to death” and “that supplied her with the ability to love or hate”–invokes the ancestral pain and trauma resulting from technologies of enslavement and rape perfected on the bodies of Black women and men, and anticipates a science of epigenetics still, at the time, largely secluded from fields outside biogenetics. Reminiscent of newsreel footage of a beaten and bound Patrice Lumumba being literally force fed his own words from a previously delivered political speech during transport to his torture and assassination, Naylor’s image of the soiled paper bag stuffed in Lorraine’s mouth to silence her places rape right alongside the historical traumas and political turmoil contemporaneously experienced by the intercolony of a Brewster Place as well as destabilized postcolonial nations throughout the African diaspora.
Rape is part of an entire technocracy of death and extermination that enforces peoples disappearance-in-plain-sight. Remarking on the erasure of multiple locations of postcolonial subjectivity by logics deployed to secure the U.S. dominated global post-9/11 terrorism apparatus, Régine Michelle Jean-Charles writes: “Allusions to terrorism in relation to sexual violence implicitly refer to and indict what has been left out of the ‘War on Terror,’ which, as feminist critics have observed, ‘is produced, constructed, and waged on highly gendered terrain’” (2-3). Rape is, particularly for Black descendants of chattel slavery in the Americas, one of the many horrific derogations of a disjunctive, racialized “flesh” which Hortense Spillers understands as “hieroglyphics”: corporeally hidden torture inflicted on dispossessed Black bodies and generationally transferred via cultural collusion, “finding its various symbolic substitutions in an efficacy of meanings” (67).
It is my intention in the dissertation project to consider seriously how the rationalized laws of a post-9/11 militarized capitalism sanction rape while criminalizing seropositive status as part of an entire technocracy of totalizing carcerality, death/dying, and genocidal extermination that coheres at the manifold of western thought, enforcing a disappearance-in-plain-sight. I am interested in what Cathy Cohen, building on the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, specifies as “intersectional structuring of cross-cutting issues” (14). It is by analyzing how these intersections are mitigated through issues that cut across sociopolitical life to varying degrees that Cohen thinks it possible to understand in what ways the cordoning-off and reduction of multiplicity into a singularized Black ‘Post-Civil Rights’ “congruity” has paralyzed Black peoples and institutions like the Black Church from political mobilization against the HIV/AIDS pandemic (16). In the context of what amounts to uninterrupted war and anti-Black state sponsored terrorism, how will other pandemics, like COVID (already operating within a homeostasis of Black destruction), build a kind of biopolitical defense against immunity?
9/11 & The Authoritarian Cut
The authoritarian cut, as I am calling it, is imposed by a rationalized law like the Patriot Act and dissociates the public-private meaning from judgement about the common good and its sociopolitical consequences, splitting privacy into forms of surveillance capitalism (Zuboff). If we consider that technology is, in Lacanian terms, one of many scientific formulas, discourses, to arrive at ‘a’ (small case) reality, it is perhaps possible to better grasp the material as social when quantifying the physical consequences of this naturalized imaginary at the cutting of being (Zupanncic 26-8). In other words, as Karen Barad states, “matter and meaning cannot be dissociated” (3). I cannot really, in this materially fixated world, “objectively cut away slices of my reality,” Fanon observes (BSWM 116). Slavoj Zizek refers to this reified existence as an “extra-symbolic Real” (capital R), a ‘fundamental’ rational order of reality in which a fragment/artifact (e.g. the Bible) of the unknowable Other (God in Cartesian terms) functions as the real jouissance (satisfaction/enjoyment) (311-12; Gueroult 99-111). Political apathy is the consequence of this authoritarian cut, a symbolic ideology (negative God effect) functioning as alienated subjectivity that produces its own –self as fetish in an attempt to eliminate the appearance of excessive power through legal clarification (Zizek 49-51; 21).
The period immediately following 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. allied “war on terrorism” eventually morphs into a “war on terror,” inciting a frenzied paranoia, a viral fear, which galvanizes the public’s backing of a morally justified preemptive war that comes to be known as the ‘Bush Doctrine.’ Circumventing international law and the U.N. Security Council, this doctrine effectively gives the U.S. “a special right to use force preemptively” despite misdirected motivations, warped perceptions, misgivings or biases that might factor into its actions. The claim of “special right,” bolstered by rhetoric of ‘good and evil’/‘us and them,’ is ethically unsound and politically divisive (Singer, 180-2). In undermining international law, the Bush Doctrine and the USA PATRIOT Act (Patriot Act) effectively dismantle the Lieber Code, enacted in 1863 during the U.S. Civil War to, among other things, protect against rape (Feimster, 17-25; Evans; Fabian Witt). The law was largely the basis of the post WWII Geneva Convention (1949) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What is often referred to as merely a violent, male predatory subculture is in actuality what feminist philosopher, Claudia Card defines as a “protection racket,” a sanctioning of the rules, preemptively and punitively, that allow for rape. Card argues that if rape is recognized as terrorism and a crime against humanity, then “protection racket rape” should also be so recognized (267).
An officialized alienation propagated by the anti-terrorist surveillance state, a double bind logic Fanon refers to as an “immunization of emotion,” triggers an entire complex circuitry of the ‘us’/‘them’ patriotic cut (BSWM 115-16). As Hannah Arendt notes, one of the major defining features of totalitarianism that distinguishes it from other forms of tyranny is that it not only installs the mechanism for dominating political isolation but nurtures “loneliness…the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” A consequence of this state authorized cut and “the common ground for terror,” what makes loneliness so destructive is that it is integral to the human experience and therefore a most effective tool for dehumanization. Authoritarianism thrives on an omnipresent loneliness cutting across every aspect of human existence (OT 475). Whether through crushing loneliness or a white neurotic orientation toward racist heteropatriarchal indifference, exploiting the cultural fragmentation of a post-Fordist deindustrialized neoliberal capitalism and making use of decades of government sponsored social engineering research—studies like Theodor Adorno’s coauthored pioneering work in social psychology, The Authoritarian Personality (1950)—the U.S. post 9/11 surveillance state violently retools the rational technocratic apparatus without any viable skeptical opposition.
 Iton argues that modernity is epistemologically and ontologically demarcated by the sociopsychological limits of ‘world’ imposed by Black enslavement and mirrored in the splittings of the Civil Rights movement from a Black radical Left (feminist, anti-racist, and queer progressives of the post-WWII era).