Thursday, November 13, 2008

Eminem:The New White Negro by Carl Hancock Rux

“Wearing visors, sunglasses

And disguises
Cause my split personality
Is having an identity crisis”
Eminem from “Low, Down, Dirty”

“There is a zone of non-being,
An extraordinary sterile and arid region,
An utterly naked declivity where an authentic
Upheaval can be born.
In most cases the Black man lacks the advantage
Of being able to accomplish this descent
Into a real hell.”
Frantz Fanon from “Black Skin, White Masks”

1. Revenge of Pentheus

Pentheus, the protagonists of Euripedes’ The Bacchae , was a young moralist and anarchical warrior who sought to abolish the worship of Dionysus (God of tradition, or perhaps better said…God of the re-cyclical, who causes the loss of individual identity in the uncontrollable chaotic eruption of ritualistic possession). When Pentheus sets out to infiltrate the world of the Bacchae and explore the mysteries of savage lore, his intention is to save the possessed women of Thebes (from themselves) who engage in hedonistic practices somewhere high in the mountains. Dionysus derails the young warrior’s lofty mission by titillating his sexual curiosity (inviting him to take a quick glimpse of the drunken women as they revel in their lesbian orgy). In order to first handed witness the goings on of the inhumane, Pentheus must disguise himself as one of the inhumane. Ultimately the young moralist's disguise mirrors the appearance of Dionysus (blonde, effeminate), the very God he seeks to conquer. The transformed soldier, now possessed by the spirit of Dionysus, is set on the highest branch of a fir tree, elevated above all and visible to none--or so he is lead to believe. Pentheus' disguise is as obvious as his voyeuristic tendencies, and it is because of this very visible elevated space he inhabits that he is quickly discovered and brutally dismembered by the possessed women on the mountain, lead by his own mother, who see him for what he is.
Historically, academics have neatly interpreted the characters of The Bacchae as belonging to themes of good vs. evil, rational vs. reason, nobility vs. paganism. In the casual study of classical realism, Pentheus is noble in his efforts to eradicate paganism, and Dionysus is an all powerful, demonic and immoral force…but in a more careful study ( or at least, an alternative one), we learn that Dionysus is a traditional Olympian God, neither good nor bad. His powers are amoral; they are powers informed only by the powers that control human existence. Real life; death, sex, grief, joy, etc., in its entire splendor. Dionysus and his worshippers can not be controlled or converted (colonized perhaps, but not converted). Their humanity has been perceived as inhumane, and in defense of their right to preserve an identity and a culture for themselves, an extreme cruelty befitting of inhumanity is enacted. The mother’s murder of her son is a necessary evil; we accept the death of Pentheus as the inevitable defeat of his judgmental and moral idealism, but—because this act of brutality is performed by the mother of its victim, we also question the value of human existence above the existence of humanity (couldn’t she have just given him a slap on the hand and a good talking to and said, “Baby, some people live differently than others, but ain’t nobody better than the rest…”?) Perhaps the moral to the story is… The initial search for the identity of the individual is sacrificed for the identity of the collective, so we must now all live and speak in broad terms and forsake our sons and daughters for the ultimate good of humanity as we see it. The evolution of human existence is propelled by a constant struggle to negotiate one's perception of self and one's perception of the other, and some of the most historically flawed (though pervasive) acts of negotiating an understanding of identity are politicized narcissism, oppression of the other and cultural mimicry--all of which seek collective agreement. Inevitably collective agreement regarding identity produces a common design for humanity, or a morality relative to the perceptions of a particular group. Hierarchical notions of humanity are formed and eventually, once the tracks are laid people will have to make their camps on either side. Conflict. War. Oppression. Somebody or bodies in opposition to the populace will have to dismembered.

Fast forward a few thousand years to a more contemporary but parallel hero/anti-heroic protagonist--Eminem, the platinum domed Caesar haircut pop prince bad-boy superstar of late 20th/early 21st century Post Modern hip-hop culture. Like Pentheus, Eminem may also be seen as a rebellious and beardless icon with disdain for the majority and like Pentheus, he dresses himself in the garments of the outcasts, has learned their language, their songs and rituals…but, unlike Pentheus, Eminem is no moralist martyr with a secret desire to objectify. The Real Slim Shady does not make the mistake of recreating the Theban soldier's vain attempt to destroy the God of mass appeal. He accepts the unholy ghost as his personal Savior, and with a slight flip of the tragic Greek script (with hip-hop flare) introduces to us his first sacrifice--his own mother, whom he publicly debases and strips of all garments of integrity, drags nude into the spotlight, and ritualistically murders hit single after hit single. Though savagery is expected to call for misogyny of magnanimous proportions, Eminem’s humiliation of the maternal figure is not just limited to his own mother, but extends itself to she who is also the mother of his own child (or in ghetto fabulous vernacular, his baby mama). In one of his award winning debut acts of hit single hedonism, the Real Slim Shady murders his baby mama right in front of his baby for our entertainment pleasure--and later, in his sophomore phase, morphs into a fan of himself who is inspired to do the same. A continuum, thereby raising the inhumane status of outcast culture to new Bacchanalian heights.
The post-modern pop culture icon of the outlaw is complete and to be carried into the new millennium; Eminem does not seek to know pagan lore—he was born into it, has always spoken the language of it, has always danced to the music of it, has always dressed himself in the latest pagan wear, has never used this language, this music, or this apparel to disguise his true identity, or to disguise his race and he has never tried to disassociate himself from the source of his performance, the black male outlaw or outcast of hip-hop fame. Rappers Big Boi and Dre may go by the name Outkast, but Eminem proves in order to be a real outcast you've got to do more than apologize to Miss Jackson for making her daughter cry --you got to fuck the bitch, kill the bitch, dump the bitch's body in the river and make the world laugh about the dead bitch.
Eminem's politically incorrect vaudeville routine (an oxymoron) is not to be attempted by everyone. His protégé’s, D-12, failed miserably as horror rappers on their debut album “Devil’s Night” (if poor record sales and bad reviews are any indication). Boasting of slapping around handicapped women, gorging pills, and sodomizing their grandmothers, the effect is less tongue in cheek than tongue in toilet. When old school mack daddy of hip-hop cool, Slick Rick, made a cameo appearance on the recently released Morcheeba album, “Charango”, he humorously flows ala Eminem style on “Women Lose Weight” about murdering his overweight wife in order to hook up with his sexy blonde secretary. The result is derivative at best. Incidentally, not long after the Morcheeba album release, Slick Rick found himself arrested by the INS and awaiting deportation from this country because somebody just found out that he has been an illegal citizen for over thirty years. Not to suggest that there are any obvious connections between being Eminem and imitating Eminem, but so far, only Eminem gets away with being Eminem, because he uses his disguise to disguise himself as undisguised—raising the questions, who is the real outcast, who is the real Slim Shady, what has he inherited from culture to achieve his bad-boy outcast minstrel rebel superstar icon, and what exactly is being performed?

2. Fanon Had A (Semantic) Dream
Frantz Fanon tells us that the oppressed must identify an oppressive archetype in order to overcome historical oppression. But before the oppressed can achieve acts of true upheaval, they must first realize that they have yet to achieve “non-being” status. The oppressed may have attempted prior acts of resistance, but have never actually “descended into a real hell” that will scorch into the very nature of seeing an effective upheaval that brings the non-being into being. For now, the oppressed continues to live in the dream of identity, the dream that (in reality) the oppressed is in fact, Negro, Colored, Black, Minority, Afro or African American, Hispanic, Oriental, Dykes, Queers, Bitches, Ho’s, Niggaz. All non-beings in society, accepted as real identities. The acceptance of these identities further compels a performance of these identities, whether compliant or rebellious.
The oppressed identity performance relies upon a collective agreement informed by a historical narrative that either supports the validity of or opposes the construct of these identities. Before a revisionist identity can be forged, there was an inheritance and acceptance of a construct—Thus, even when the oppressed think they are revising their identities, updating the language of their identities, or endeavoring to better the circumstances of their identities, they are not…not completely and not actually…because no language in the American polyglot has ever been assigned to the oppressed that points to the very nature of their (our) human identity beyond elementary categorizations, and no language accurate enough to define identity exists in our daily collective agreement. We are comfortable with vague concepts of identity, and the ghettos and empires these concepts create. We may accept ourselves as outcasts, but we aspire to elevate ourselves above outcast status while maintaining pride in outcast culture and outcast history.
What the oppressed figure in America has been working with as an identity is actually an archetypal construct born out of a dream (as in aspirations and imaginings) belonging to an oppressive figure who is not only the architect of the dream that oppresses us, but is also the Dionysian like landlord of our realities—both good and bad—neither real or unreal, and completely exempt from being vanquished from our realities. We inhabit an oppressive dream, and until that descent into Fanon’s “real hell”, the oppressed will continue to pay a high price to rent sub-standard space in the dream that we call race in America.

3. Eminem, The Other White Meat

“…If all the Niggers
Started calling eachother Nigger,
Not only among themselves…but among Ofays…
Nigger wouldn’t mean anymore than ‘Good night’,
‘God bless you’, or ‘I promise to tell the whole truth
And nothing but the whole truth so help me God’…
When that beautiful day comes,
You’ll never see another Nigger kid
Come home from school crying
Because some Ofay motherfucker called him Nigger.”
--Lenny Bruce—

Eminem a.k.a. Marshall Mathers was born in St. Joseph, MO (near Kansas City), spending the better part of his impoverished childhood in Detroit, Michigan— which, by the way, is about 90 percent ethnic minority, has one of the highest concentrations of African-Americans in the nation at 83 percent, while non-Latino whites comprise only 12 percent of the city's population. Detroit's recent dip below 1 million is largely attributed to continuing white flight, and 10 percent of the state's population has lived in poverty for more than twenty years ( a family of three with an income of a little more than $9,300 earns too much to qualify for welfare in Michigan -- but is about $4,000 below the federal poverty guideline) according to the American Community Survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau. Translation: Eminem may have been born white but not economically privileged.
He was socialized as Black, in the proverbial hood—and the music of the proverbial hood in America for the last twenty five years has been hip-hop music. The same inner city struggles and impoverished circumstances that brought us blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, doo-wop and soul, brought us hip-hop music—it began as a form of identity boosting vocal scatting over pulsating beats and progressed to become a means of expressing the social realities of African American urbanity. By the time it became a major money maker in the music industry, the genre of hip-hop transformed into a bodacious representation of gangsta life and gangsta obsessions replete with murder, money, sex, alcohol and drug consumption—and when this got tired, narrowed itself down and over occupied itself with the Glam of capital gain.
The legend of Eminem aka Slim Shady aka Marshall Mathers’ psychotic nasal slapstick trips of alienation begin with his Detroit exposure to rap, performing it at the age of 14, and later earning notoriety as a member of the Motor City duo Soul Intent. The legend he dropped out of high school, worked minimum wage jobs, practiced beat boxing and freestyling his lyrics on home recordings, and worshipped rap groups like NWA—admits he “wanted to be Dr. Dre and Ice Cube”, wore big sunglasses while “lipsinking to their records in the mirror”. He also honed his style in the company of five black Detroit MC’s. Together, the racially integrated posse decided that each of them would invent an alter ego, thus the six MC’s were to be thought of as twelve MC's—dubbing themselves, The Dirty Dozen (D12). When Eminem emerged as a solo artist in 1996 with the independent release Infinite, he was accused of trying to sound “too much like Nas” so he perfected a nasal white boy, horror-rap cadence, following Infinite with the Slim Shady EP; which lead the hip-hop underground to dub him hip-hop’s "great white hope."
The legend of his discovery varies. Allegedly, Dr. Dre discovered Eminem’s demo tape on the floor of Interscope label chief Jimmy Iovine's garage. Another story goes that Dre first heard Eminem on the radio and said “Find that kid whoever he is! I’m gonna make him a star!”, or something like that. Either way, not until Em took second place (who won first place ? ) in the freestyle category at 1997's Rap Olympics MC battle in Los Angeles did Dre agreed to sign him, producing the best-selling triple platinum Slim Shady LP in early 1999. With controversial yet undeniable talent (the right mix for stardom of any kind) Eminem became the white boy cartoon God of surreal white trash humor and graphic violence, a stratum of Roseanne Barr meets Quentin Tarrentino meets Mickey Mouse club cum Snoop Dogg and beatnik Dobie Gillis . The Marshall Mathers LP followed and sold close to two million copies in its first week of release, making it one of the fastest selling rap albums of all time and his latest album, "The Eminem Show" was the first album since N'Sync's "Celebrity" and the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks to sell over 1 million copies in its debut week. To top it all off, Eminem's roman a clef feature film debut "8 Mile", is described as a story about "the boundaries that define our lives and a young man's struggle to find the strength and courage to transcend them." In his great struggle to transcend boundaries the surrealist rap icon also managed two weapons charges, an assault charge, a lawsuit from his mother for humiliating her in his lyrics, and his baby mama attempted suicide—all to keep it real, as they say.
But Eminem does not offer us real, he offers the surreal--several alter egos further immersing our Bacchanalian notions of race inclusive hip-hop lore. We all want to be Bacchus or Dionysus. Especially black people, especially Niggaz--who have invented the alter-ego of a New Savage God—a gun toting nationalist radical with supreme sexual prowess and unsurpassable talent to counter Bill Cosby’s 1980’s middle class Negrodum. We, who are members of the so-called ethnic minority and belong to a hip-hop generation, have inherited an imposition and elaborated on it until it became an opportunity, borrowing our new black character from a relevant history of slavery, reconstruction, ghetto realism, black civil rights, arts and radical movements, and mythic Blaxploitation heroes like Shaft and Foxy Brown. But less we get high-minded about it all, the badass thug and gangsta bitch is not purely the invention of inner city urban imagination. They are also products of Hollywood's imaginary American heroes; Second generation immigrants turned Depression era gangster moguls, as portrayed by Edgar G. Robinson, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart; John Wayne's cocky cowboy; Sean Connery's hyper-heterosexual sci-fi upper class guy, "James Bond".
Hip-hop inventors have grown up with these archetypes on their television screens, and incorporated them into a contemporary gothic myth set in the housing projects they know to America to be. In order for this merger of white and black icons to evolve, there had to be in place a basic understanding of race amongst a contemporary generation. The new power brokers of culture had to inherit an inherited concept of race, and form vaguely similar ways of seeing the construct of race. If it appears that the history of race in America, socially, politically, and psychologically, means less to the new generation of pop music icons and their fans than the performance of class and outlaw status, it is because a race inclusive product for the American cultural marketplace demands short term memory.
What has emerged from an old system of cultural supremacy and inferiority, is a new superpower contingent upon our informed (and uninformed) race perception. The final incarnation of the black male figure in a century that began with sharecroppers and first generation free peoples trying to avoid the hanging tree are their gun-toting, dick slinging capitalist descendants. The black male outlaw identity is a commodifiable character open to all that would like to perform it. In order for the oppressed figure's dream of attaining ostentatious wealth and fame while defying conventional structures of morality to come into fruition, the dream had to be race inclusive, race accessible, and dangerous enough to pose an idealistic threat to a conservative society—translation; like jazz, white people had to like it, buy it, invest in it, and benefit from it, and above all, identify with it too...but the seduction to it had to appeal to a fascination with and fear of a complex figure they’d been taught to disdain. Not unlike Pentheus’ objectifying curiosity, white culture watched the evolution of the hip-hop character from afar before the hip-hop character knew they were watching at all. Thus, hip-hop culture has evolved into another classic ready to wear American original, like rock-n-roll—except this time, the black hip-hop artist participates in the profit and control of the industry (to some extent) more so than ever before. But it is still an outsider culture, perpetuating its own outsider mythology, and if there are non-black, economically privileged teenagers who wear their oversized jeans pulled down around their knees and sleep beneath posters of self-proclaimed rapists, gang members, and murderers with record deals, it is because every generation of youth culture since Socrates has identified with outsider/outcast/radicalism, and typically pursued some kind of participation in it. Radicalism, whether political or not, is a multi-cultural experience.
Some may contend that white artists who pioneer their way into so called black music forms, take the privilege of being allowed to do so seriously, and pursue lofty goals of destroying race barriers, thereby bridging gaps of new race perception in America, but others may defend that race inclusivity (sic) diminishes the organic intention of race music (sic) until it simplifies into yet another popular entertainment form in the marketplace where its inventor will compete for a right to exist (i.e. if Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt or Lyle Lovett stopped playing the blues, what would happen to B.B.King or Keb Mo’?).
Race performance in America --however guilty we all are of it (and we all are guilty of it) has suffered an uneven exchange. There are allowances made for some to a greater degree than others. As in jazz, and rock-n-roll, white representation in hip-hop and r&b is completely acceptable and rarely questioned (even if contemporary black representation in rock, alternative rock, or any kind of rock limits itself to far fewer success stories), but some have questioned whether or not white representation in black music ultimately diminishes the sentiment of black music, or distracts a critical audience from narrowly perceiving black music innovations as black music. Who does music or race belong to? Whether or not race is to stake its claim in music, race performance prevails as much now as it did in the good ol’ Al Jolson days. One can easily see a careful study in the color line cross-over iconography of artists like Vanilla Ice, the first popular hip-hop wigger to top the charts, who cooked his character with the main ingredients of authentic angry black male aggression;

Ice man coming with a dope hit
Cause a few suckers need their throat slit
(from “Living”)

Further validated himself with essential sociopolitical blues lamentations of existential thug life;

Society has got me screaming
This hatred…
‘Cause I just can’t be myself…
(from “A.D.D.”)

And offered us some insight to the familial dysfunction of ghetto life that produced his incredulity;

I can’t explain why I want to blast brains…
Mother ! You did good as you could
After all the abuse
(from “Scars”)

But Vanilla Ice’s middle class white childhood reality emerged and ruined the authenticity of his performance—though his hip-hop icon still left an indelible mark on hip-hop culture. As with all great rock stars or rock star hopefuls, it is the image of these icons and their proclamations of themselves that reaches beyond them, creating a mass of followers who are inspired by their belief in the performance, not the person. In this way, those few artists fortunate enough to achieve superstar status become ancient, distant archetypes that appeal to our psychic dispositions—like Jesus or Gatsby—the icon we believe in helps us validate what we believe about life and the world, whether it’s true or not.

4.The Good, The Bad, and The Nigga
“It’s not right to start penalizing good people…
We need a humane monitoring system to
search out the good and bad.”

--Slick Rick, while awaiting deportation
in a Florida detention facility--

Both Eminem and Vanilla Ice take their cues from a savage model, and it is this savage model that has informed everyone from the Surrealist to the Bohemians. If there is an eternal plan, it is a primitive one with no bearing on virtue. Their performances are rooted in a supposed realism. Realism places God in heaven, makes distinct social classes where moral law distinguishes between good and evil—an orderly world with gradual changes; wars, revolutions, inventions, etc. One can belong to the outcasts of this world, and still be a realist. It’s all in the style of your performance. Style becomes the only authentic instrument of classic realism, and an important elemental style of hip-hop realism involves daily mortal danger. However, within one’s own existence, one is influenced not only by the current circumstances of life but by the style of life where we are experiencing it. Style both replicates reality and takes us away from our reality. Style also heightens and produces a counter balance to the realism of life. (ie. your hip-hop icon du jour may live with a sense of daily mortal danger—like you do—but unlike you he drives a Mercedes jeep, wears diamonds and furs and maintains a harem of scantily clad women with bodies endowed according to the fickle of his erotic fantasies).
Those who choose to deny that we now live in a society psychically impacted by hip-hop realism may still embrace the changing styles of hip-hop realism because it removes them from their actual reality (as all good forms of entertainment should). If the edict of early hip-hop lore shifted its weight from the innocence of Sugarhill Gang's party babble to Public Enemy's urban radicalism and political consciousness, it seemed to be a call to arms--an insistence that the oppressed figure recognize something about his status elevation potential. If hip-hop again shifted its weight from Suge Knight's heyday of East Coast, West Coast rivalry and gangbanging to Puffy's epoch of Versace gear, Cristal champagne and Harry Winston diamond-encrusted platinum jewelry, it read as an attempt to break from the tradition of celebrating the kind of violence that produced the sudden and actual deaths of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur—an attempt to make a gradual transference from ghetto realism toward escaping conventions of death. An oppressed capitalist’s bargain with life.
The anti-symbolic nature of the savage archetype from which Eminem creates his character, is different from Vanilla Ice’s invention. Vanilla’s performance was classic in nature—a form of modern realism where human truth was more important than the poetry of words. Eminem’s eminence rarely attempts to address serious social or political ills, nor is it obsessed with hyper-capitalism. Eminem does not attempt to perform the authentic Nigga as much as he performs a New White Nigga (or Negro), maintains his whiteness with quirky vocal Jerry Lewis like phrasing, bright Greek-god bleached blonde buzz cut, and the classic hip-hop realism he was initially influenced by when he first studied the style of Naughty by Nature and Nas, has been replaced by his own brand of contemporary surrealism that abstracts and exaggerates hip-hop lore more so than any of his authentic heroes dare try.
Eminem’s lyrics speak to the wayward descendants of Fanon’s Negroes; Niggaz. Niggaz hear him and Niggaz understand him, still, he comes as a representative of what Niggaz have produced in their dreams—someone who is not them but worships them and belongs to them, and by virtue of socialization—is one of them. He confounds Niggaz and white people alike in the multi-cultural schoolyard with his mastering of Nigga language and assumption of Nigga style. His presentation is not overtly authentic, but infused with authenticity because he has lived in Nigga neighborhoods and listened to Nigga music and learned Nigga culture—and the integrity of his performance does not attempt mimicry, like those culture bandits who came before him, after him, or share pop-chart status with him. He frowns at white people like Moby, Christina Aguillera and Fred Durst who poorly adapt yet successfully co-opt the aesthetics, ideologies and style of the oppressed. But before we give him the NAACP Image award, it should remain clear that Eminem’s race performance is not (solely) intended to impress the oppressed. He’s already done that and moved on. His performance claims no allegiance to his oppressive kinfolk—his character is more concerned with receiving validation from Niggaz (black people, or any oppressed people who are part of his adopted family of hip-hop realists who embrace his brand of comic outcast ghetto style). He comes to Niggaz already fluent, already revered by a relevant society of Nigga royalty (Dre, who discovered him, Busta Rhymes who dubbed him "the baddest rapper out here.", Madonna, Elton John).
Eminem takes the mythology of the oppressed, identifying himself as impervious, armed and dangerous, sexually superior, economically privileged and radical—and turns this dream on its head. Makes it a macabre comedy of internal warfare—we must laugh at our anger and still be angry, he says. We must be offensive and still be funny, he says. Our enemy is not race…our enemy is everybody and anybody who is not “us”, and “us” is defined as urban outsiders who have grown up disenfranchised with strange, irreverent dreams—the problem with “us" Niggaz is we don’t take our irreverence far enough… lyrically speaking. We talk about killing each other and celebrate our daily drug and alcohol consumption, but we still get up on the MTV awards and thank and praise my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for small favors like best rap video. We aspire to make millions of dollars any way we can, to get rich quick and stay rich forever, but as soon as we sign our souls to a record contract, we take our advance to the nearest check-cashing place, lay-away sneakers with diamond soles, slam a deposit down on any house Cher once owned, equipped with gold leaf toilet paper, and wait for MTV cribs to drop by.
Niggaz may talk bad about bitches and they baby’s mama—Eminem brutally murders his. Niggaz may have issues regarding absent fathers or dysfunctional mothers—Eminem exposes their dysfunction’s, elaborately, hangs his mother’s pussy high up on a tree for all the world to see and laugh at. Niggaz may be misogynist, may boast of sexual superiority and sexual indiscretions with a multitude of women, may commonly relegate women to the bitch and ho status with fat asses prime for the taking, Eminem takes the bitch, drugs the bitch, fucks the bitch, discards the bitch’s dead naked body on the side of the road and moves on to the next bitch. This horror-rapping member of the oppressed nation who looks like the oppressor has won. He has proven to the oppressed that he is one of them, and he is down for the people—and he has proven to the oppressor that they are still superior in their perceptive abilities. Ultimately, he replaces us. He is not one of us but someone’s extreme idea of “us”—and by virtue of a neutral medium, becomes us with supernatural powers beyond us.

5. The New Surrealist Manifesto

The early 20th century European movement of white male artists who attempted to perform a poetic, political, moral, revolt refused to accept anything derived from a cortical understanding. There was to be no distinction made between what they considered to be abstract and what they considered to be real. In “Surrealist and Existentialist Humanism”, Ferdinand Alquie wrote, “to claim that reason is man’s essence is already to cut man in two, and the classical tradition has never failed to do so. It has drawn a distinction between what is rational in man (which by that sole fact is considered truly human); and what is not rational (instincts and feelings) which consequently appears unworthy of man.” Freud also spoke of the mortal danger incurred for man by this split, this schism between the forces of reason and deep seated passions—which seem destined to remain unaware of each other. Surrealism wanted to save impulses and desires from repression.
The Surrealists, like Eminem, borrowed the sinister dreams of the oppressed—their aspirations for economic success outside of traditional structures; their achieved narcissism born to overwhelm self loathing and inherent existentialism; their illusions of grandeur used to counter depressed circumstances; their dismissal of history in order to fashion for themselves a new reality in a present tense.
The Surrealist as well as the early Modernist movements fashioned themselves after their associations with the outcasts of society—in most cases, the outcasts were either Spanish, of African descent or African—and in all cases, the outcasts (or savages) were economically and socially disenfranchised. Gautier and Alexander Dumas traveled through Spain and wore gypsy costumes as if to make their willed identification more real, and this escape into the exotic became the trend of many pre and post WWII European writers, artists, and auto-didacts.
It was Verlaine who first coined the phrase, “White Negro” , when describing Rimbaud, calling him “the splendidly civilized, carelessly civilizing savage.”, though the phrase is usually associated with a Norman Mailer essay in which he attempts to explain the impulse of the white man who dares to live with danger by attempting the art of the primitive.
In Mailer’s infamous “The White Negro” essay (written in 1959 in response to William Faulkner on the topic of school segregation, and the relationship between Blacks and Whites) he insists, “Whites resist integration and the prospect of equality” because whites secretly know “the Negro already enjoys sensual superiority…The Negro has had his sexual supremacy and the White had his white supremacy.” Mailer further identified himself as a “near-Beat adventurer”, who identified with Negroes and “urban adventurers”, those who “drifted out at night looking for action with a Black man’s code to fit their facts.” “The hipster” he said, “had absorbed the existentialist synopsis of the Negro and could be considered a White Negro”, because “…any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day…the Negro knew life was war…The Negro could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for survival the art of the primitive. The Black man lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust…and despair of his orgasm…”
Mailer’s explanation of Beat culture (a contemporary form of European Bohemian culture) as “the essence of hip…”, further emphasized that “the source of hip is the Negro for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries…the Bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face to face with the Negro…the child was the language of hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling.” James Baldwin countered Mailer’s racist and myopic views in an essay, “The Black Boy looks At the White Boy”, calling Mailer’s sentiments “so antique a vision of the Blacks at this late hour”. But Eldridge Cleaver called Mailer’s views “prophetic and penetrating in its understanding of the psychology involved in the accelerating confrontation of Black and White in America.”
Fifty years before Mailer's ethnographic fantasy, Flaubert traveled to Egypt out of a desire for a “visionary alternative” for something “in contrast to the grayish tonality of the French provincial landscape.”—resulting in his “labored reconstruction of the other”. Baudelaire said true civilization was “…hunters, farmers, and even cannibals—all these…superior by reasons of their energy and their personal dignity to our western races.” Gautier (whose best friend was a Negro from Gaudeloupe, Alexandre Privat d’Anglemont) when commenting on the Algerian influence on French fashion, said “Our women already wear scarves which have served the harem slaves…hashish is taking the place of champagne…so superior is primitive life to our so-called civilization.” Before Josephine Baker reared her beautiful black ass in Paris in the 1920’s, European Bohemia was already fascinated with their perceptions of Negroes, and as explained by Firmin Maillard, Bohemians were “philosophers who couldn’t have cared less what their philosophy was based on…(they were) brave searchers for infinity, impudent peddlers of dreams…” and Erich Muhasm admitted, “…It emerged that all of us without single exception were apostates, had rejected our origins, were wayward sons.” It emerged Maurice de Vlaminick was already collecting African art as early as 1904, and Picasso praised the influence of African art on his work by stating, “…I understood what the Negroes used their sculpture for…to help people avoid coming under the influence of spirits again.”
In 1916, Hugo Ball, founder of the Dada movement, opened a cabaret in the red light district of Zurich, where prostitutes and Africans commingled freely with starving artists called The Café Voltairie, infamous for the illogical simultaneous poems composed and performed by the likes of Jean Arp and Tristan Tzara and Walter Serner—explained by them to be “elegiac, humorous, bizarre”. They wore black cowls and played a variety of exotic drums, calling their performance the “Chant Negres”. Ten years later, Surrealist artists Robert Desnos and Andre de la Riviere moved into studio apartments next door to the Bal Negre, a bar frequented by Negroes who lived in hostels on the same street. Hugo Ball explained, “From the Negro we take only the magical-liturgical bits, and only the antithesis makes them interesting…We drape ourselves like medicine men in their insignia and their essences but we want to ignore the path whereby they reached these bits of cult and parade.”
These “bits of cult and parade”, co-opted by European Bohemians, leaked into the mass culture of modernity, much in the same way hip-hop and R&B has produced Eminem, Britney Spears and N’Sync. The result is not associated with race as much as it is associated with culture. Alfred Jarry (author of the infamous 19th century French play “Ubu”) recreated himself as a savage, but the invention was so abstract that it could not directly be linked to the Negro—he perfected a staccato speech for himself, a Negro slang of sorts, without directly impersonating the Negro. He publicly performed the fictional character he’d invented for himself by walking up and down the boulevards in white clown masks, cycling clothes, or dirty white suits and shirts made of paper on which he had drawn a tie—demanding outcast status in a formal world. Jarry lived in a room with nothing except a pallet bed and a plaster cast of a huge penis—his ode to both poverty and the wealth of hyper-sexuality. Perhaps Eminem is more like Heseltine, who possessed a sweet boyish face and closely cropped blonde hair but was described by D.H. Lawrence in “Women In Love” as “degenerate”, “Corrupt”. Heseltine, who was married to the beautiful Puma (who eventually committed suicide—much like Em’s baby mama has tried to do, an ode to the tragic beautiful grisette (working girl) of Paris who loved the self indulged Bohemian savage artist), and composed music under the nom de plume “Peter Warlock” . Heseltine was also known to smoke a lot of weed, delved in the occult, and gassed himself to death—death translated into superiority for most existentialist Bohemians.
Fifty years or so after the European Bohemian era, the Beat generation invented itself with Jack Kerouac , Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassidy and William Burroughs at its forefront (Leroi Jones is often omitted from the history of insurgent Beat culture—most likely because any true beat poet is to be remembered as a performer of inhumanity, not an actual savage). When a young Allen Ginsberg admitted in an interview that while growing up he “developed a tremendous tolerance for chaos”, and described the world as “absolutely real and final and ultimate and at the same time, absolutely unreal and transitory and of the nature of dreams…without contradiction”, he easily validated Verlaine and Norman Mailer's theoretical view of The Negro and their psychological profile of The White Negro.
Like hip-hop culture, Beat culture emerged in an era of economic prosperity and political paranoia. If the mid-twentieth century American White Negro emerged in a post-war era of convention, in which hip and cool Negro icons created a counter culture of style, immorality and self destruction , the latter 20th century American New White Negro patterned himself after hip-hop culture’s era of rebellion, taking him on an uncharted journey prone for danger. Ronald Reagon and Rodney King were good reasons to recreate a new generation of Charlie Parkers and Billie Hollidays—undeniably gifted icons of artistic genius, personal style and self destruction. If the Negro hipster lived without definable past or future, the hip-hopster never let you forget his past and elaborately decorated his present with excess in anticipation of a life without a future—which elevated him to the status of potential martyr. He (or she) became like the Robert deNiro or, the hip-hop favorite, Al Pacino in “Scarface”—an outlaw feared for his enormous ferocity, revered for his unsurpassable skill and wealth, and daily living with the threat of assassination or mutiny. But the Beat culture also produced popular icons that offered a more abstract version of Mailer’s White Negro. Its superstar was Jack Kerouac, a Dionyisian figure whose impulses toward the primitive conflicted with his tendency towards culture, education and ego.
Ultimately, Jack was not as interested in being an outlaw as he was interested in being a star…the star that his White status could afford him. And as Baldwin pointed out, the Beat hipster could, at the end of the day, return to being White. The threat of daily living could never mean as much to him as it did the Negro because the hipster’s was an avant-garde performance of cool. Vanilla Ice has returned to the beach, formed a heavy metal band and reflects on the days when Suge Knight hung him by his ankle over a balcony railing—but Ice has escaped the danger of hip-hop lore by returning to fundamental whiteness. Eminem escapes hip-hop lore by maintaining fundamental whiteness in the context of blackness.

6. Living In The Dream

In the reality that is our daily human existence, Eminem does not exist. He never did. But he is a real product of the American dream—a character born out of our nation’s collective unconscious; our inborn predilection to produce parallel images or identical psychic shapes common to all men. He is conjured from what we think of ourselves and what we think of others. He is born out of The Jerry Springer Show, South Park, Jack Kerouac, Carl Van Vechten…all part of a dream, and within this dream there is a dream. Singling out Eminem as an archetype of race perception and performance in America is a shallow undertaking—the composition of his character has its history within the context of the American dream—which is now a conundrum of dreams within dreams. Dreams may be difficult to interpret--because they are, after all, indistinct metaphors and allegories of fantasy--but the dream of race and its performance in American culture is not difficult to track. It has a history, and that history comes with pre-supposed rules and pre-supposed character traits that are familiar to us all.
In the dream that is identity, there are archetypal conflicts between the free will of the human maker, (his savage creative impulses--an unconscious state of being) and what is the human thinker’s intellect (culture, and historical perspective--a conscious state of being). The landscape of democracy and freedom for all men is also the invention of a dream—a utopian impulse; a way of perceiving an eternal plan in the contingencies of time—a creation of the human will born out of fiction where there is no transcendental dimension or registration of the infinite “I am”.
Race is a recent historical invention used to make a distinction between people for purposes of colonization. C. Loring Brace, professor of anthropology at The University of Michigan, explains that the concept of race “does not appear until the Trans-Atlantic voyages of the Renaissance”. But the prevalence of race as a concept, and its relationship to appearance, human status and identity formation is actually more significant today than it ever was. Our obsession with race is only surpassed by our seemingly polite and progressive neutrality regarding race. The Racial Privacy Initiative, a ballot promoted by black businessman Ward Connelly (who also successfully ended affirmative action in the state of California) is designed to obliterate the "race box" on school and government forms, because it forces us to "pay attention to immutable and meaningless characteristics like skin color and ancestry" ("When Color Should Count", Glenn C. Loury, New York Times), but even if race does not accurately identify a people, the concept is firmly in place and forces a social dynamic as well as pinpoints a social perception of a people. We don't see each other as one in the same. Never did. Never will. The perceived image of race is based on individual (or collective) sight, which has been recreated and reproduced. It is an appearance, or a set of appearances, which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance and preserved (in language and colloquialism) for a few moments or a few centuries. Once we are aware that we can see, we are aware that we can be seen, and “the eye of the other combines with our own eye”…we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves…our perception of what we see depends on our way of seeing. Images, for instance, were first made to conjure up the appearance of something that was absent. Gradually, it becomes evident that an image can outlast what it once represented, (“Ways of Seeing”, John Berger) but verbalized perception of image arrests the object in a perceived context for as long as the perception and the original language for the perception are upheld. In the case of race in America, it is physiology and the historical perceptions of and common terminology used to describe physiology that most often informs the individual’s sense of defining race.
The dream of race as identity is born only in a perceived land of diversity (or difference). Race is a regenerated fantasy owing its genesis to neurosis (or as Freud said, “some early trauma repressed”) and our need to achieve psychic balance. What is actual is what we produce from our dreams—symbols and signs of our expressions and intuitive perceptions. Our response to what we think we see. Identity. Race. Identity is an invented thing. Race is an invented thing. They are not real, but they are actual. Race and identity are based on perception and performance and are only relative to the perceptions and performances of the individual and the collective understanding of existence and the activity of being within the context of the dream. These symbols and signs cannot be expressed differently by us or better said by us. Language fails us—and the individual or collective mind is forced into overdrive in order to invent language and behaviors for archetypes of identity. Apertures into non-ordinary reality.
It is therefore less significant that Eminem, easily identified as “white” (a non-specific race term for people of European descent) identifies himself with “black” culture (“Black” being a non-specific race term for people of African descent, “black culture” being that which is socially produced by the collective of people of African descent). That is not what makes his archetype of non-ordinary reality a significant landmark in the landscape of the American dream. Rather, it is how he has re-fashioned an old symbol that appeals to popular culture and its boiler plate concepts of race, class and identity, to a new generation in a new way—and how that old symbol has transmogrified in the last one hundred years, owing its present day existence not to the historical performance of blackness, but to the historical performance of whiteness and the ingenuity of human dreams.
There is something called black in America and there is something called white in America and I know them when I see them but will forever be unable to explain the meaning of them because they are not real even though they have a very real place in my daily existence, a fundamental relationship to my understanding of history and a critical place in my relationship to humanity. If one believes in the existence of race it is because one needs to believe in the existence of self within a culture that relies on race as a basis for the existence of humanity. One needs to believe in culture, and the products of culture that define identity and inform history. The concept of race has long been one of the most vital sources of cultural product (as well as cultural conflict), because race has as its square root a hierarchical structure of being expressed in symbolism and signs. A semiotics of equations regarding identity that have yet to be solved. These tropes and signs are produced from the unconscious as revelation. The collective unconscious creates them in order to survive (or confront) the present archetypal structure. Conveniently forgotten in our race sentimentality are the ever changing faces of black and white. Whiteness became something one had to attain in America. Of Nordic or European ancestry did not automatically translate into whiteness. Whiteness had more to do with class privilege than some notion of nationality or physiology (and class is a better definition.) Whiteness was purchased and fought for by Jews, Catholics, Irish, Italians, Polish, indentured servants…all at one time considered to be non-white in America (and even today, depending on who’s definition of whiteness you subscribe to). Blackness was never something one was attain to, at least not overtly or admittedly. Today, it seems…it is. Or is it?
If we look to Eminem’s archetype to appeal to what we know about ourselves now, we do it without referring to what we know about the identity of the other. The show is supposed to be make us forget about race, and think about how rigid this society is. How we have never really loosened up, and just had barnyard fun with our sacred cows. He uses the vernacular of black hip-hop culture, as well as the psychoanalytical vernacular of the white intellectual—and this invention of character is transferable to any race. The old White Negro may have worn cork and afro wigs, soaked up Harlem culture and delivered the talented tenth to the mainstream, given race music a haircut, tuxedo jacket, and orchestra, may have learned to shake their narrow white hips in the manner of the Negro, thereby creating just enough controversy to gain movie star status, and may have heroicized Negro jazz musicians in their literature, proudly proclaiming to have actually shared a joint or some smack with one or two Negroes at the height of a Bohemian subculture’s tendency toward race mixing—but the new White Negro has not arrived at black culture… he was born into it. He has arrived at white culture with an authentic performance of whiteness, influenced by a historical concept of blackness.
—And there is a difference…or is there?.

Selected Bibliography

1. Bohemians; The Glamorous Outcasts, Elizabeth Wilson, Rutgers University Press, 2001
2. Euripedes Introduction to The Bacchae by William Arrow Smith, Phoenix
3. Ways Of Seeing by John Berger

(this essay originally published in "Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture" edited by Greg Tate)

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