In my last post, I discussed Tavia Nyong’o’s idea that “the shiny, hard, and brittle surfaces of racist ceramic figurines reflect back upon the psychology of scapegoating black children”–a view of “blackness as a hardened form of subjectivity.” Nyong’o calls it, “this racial simile, a black skin is as hard as stone; not skin at all, but a mask, with perhaps nothing behind it.” For her, “This invulnerability provides an alibi for racist violence.” As a result, ceramic figures like my Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose invite or encourage some form of that violence–either actual or emotional–in their implied prejudiced non-African-American viewers, and the complex response of disgust and shame that Nyong’o identifies as likely in their African American viewers.
My own skin is not black. But when I look at hard black objects like my Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose, I feel no immediate sense that it would be fun to give them a quick punch or two, or acceptable to maybe drop them on the floor, unless as a negative response to what they represent. As I’ve suggested earlier, my response to them is to share some of the disgust that Nyong’o describes–but not, clearly, because I identify with what they represent. They are not black like me, or rather, I am not black like them. My disgust is that of an outsider, then, and any shame I might feel is merely theoretical, impersonal. And maybe a little too easy, therefore?
In an attempt to get my mind around the potential positive value of that shame response that Nyong’o describes, I find myself wondering if there are equally hard ceramic shakers in my collection that might be inviting me to a more immediate identification with them, and if so, how I felt about that.
First, do the hard ceramics that most of my shakers consist of equally convey messages of their symbolic hardness, of the ability of the objects they depict to take punishment? Looking over my shelves, I’ve decided that they do–especially the racial stereotypes and the cute children and animals. A crime is being committed against them. a slanderous misrepresentation that dehumanizes them–hardens them as the material that represents them hardens them. The responses of silliness or defenceless cuteness they invite then also invite a view of the kinds of people and animals they depict as sort of acceptably powerless, acceptable as the butts of hostile jokes or the dehumanizing eye of cuteness. They are, in fact, all quite deeply insulting.
And so, are any of them insulting to people like me? Is there something I should feel particularly insulted by? I decided I am old enough to recognize that the shakers in my collection that represent people most like me are these two:Two old men. Two hard old men–one hard earthenware, the other, hard plastic. Very shiny old men, with a shininess that implies a slick hard surface, and very much empty of any real humanity: both of them engage stereotypes about what it means to be old, weak, rather sexless, sleepy, nearsighted, confused. Both ask me to think of people like myself as powerless and pretty weak and maybe kind of cute and adorable for that reason–i.e., harmless. Both invite their viewers to see real old men like me as these figures depict them–as safe subjects of stereotyping and stereotypical jokes. Both imply that old men like me are hard enough, i.e., dense enough, weak enough in our dehumanizing and desensitizing and stupid-making old age to be able to take the abuse, to be perceived as what these jokey representations insist we old men always are.
And do I then feel the sort of shame for being old enough to recognize that these figures are claiming to represent people like me that, as Nyong’o says of the black ceramic figures that represent people like her and therefore arouse “the idea that ‘I am thought of as less than human’: “the very shame that floods through at that thought, a shame that, were we not human, we would have no capacity to feel, is our best internal evidence that the thought is wrong and vulgar: I feel (shame), therefore I am (human).” And as much as I want just to say that we old men are not all or only weak, not only the dehumanized remnants of their former virile selves that these hardhearted shakers depict, I also have to admit that it shames me that I know that the strangers who pass my old face and body on the street are thinking of me in exactly these shameful and shame-inducing ways. It makes me feel something a little like what the old woman in Randall Jarrell’s poem “Next Day” feels, albeit in a less gender-inflected form:
Now that I’m old, my wish
That the boy putting groceries in my car
See me. It bewilders me he doesn’t see me.
For so many years
I was good enough to eat.
Well, maybe I was never good enough to eat–but I was at least visible as something other, something more specific than just another stereotyped old man.
So I think I get it, that shame response–and I think I see how evoking it can have the positive effect of reaffirming the humanity that objects like these shakers are in the process of denying. Oppositional curating might just work after all.