Reading Response 1, Sept 13, Baraka and CRT (Sarah VC)

In all the readings, the passage that stood out to me the most was the following from Amiri Baraka:

“The culture of the powerful is very infectious for the sophisticated, and strongly addictive. To be any kind of “success” one must be fluent in this culture. Know the words of the users, the semantic rituals of power. This is a way into wherever it is you are not now, but wish, very desperately, to get into.

Even speech then signals a fluency in this culture. A knowledge at least. “He’s an educated man,” is the barest acknowledgment of such fluency . . . in any time. “He’s hip,” my friends might say. They connote a similar entrance.”

The first paragraph caught my attention on both theoretical and personal levels. On the theoretical level, to describe the culture of power as ‘addictive’ and ‘infectious’ suggests to me that the culture of the powerful is not only very tempting, but also something that one seemingly sort of falls into unconsciously or ‘catches’, as an addiction or infection. This characterization of mobility also implies that once caught up in the culture of the powerful, it is hard to leave it behind. This reminded me of Pierre Bourdieu’s claim about social mobility, that when an individual is upwardly mobile, they lose their community of origin, but replace it with a more powerful, substitute community[1]. Notably, Baraka claims this assimilation maneuver only applies to “the sophisticated.” One wonders then what ways in which everyone else assimilates. Baraka sort of answers this question when he speaks of “[cultural] fluency,” “know[ing] the words of the users [and] the semantic rituals of power.” To me, the claim that one who wishes to assimilate to a culture of power must basically learn to speak the language as a key to ‘success’ suggests some sort of artificial performance. The implication is that none of these languages are the natural languages of the learners, even if for some (“the sophisticated”) they come naturally. The connection between performance and performer/user is also interesting. The performance is viewed and then perceived (presumably by the people of the culture in power) as an indication of who the performer/user is—i.e. a man who speaks ‘well’ according to the white culture in power is labeled as “an educated man.” Baraka thus points to a conflation that people in power presumably make when faced with such a performance. Instead of engaging with the ‘performer’ in question as a whole, complex person, they use the performance to label or essentialize the person, presumably in their own favor as they push the standards and metrics with which they are most comfortable measuring ‘success’ (or ‘education’) onto someone else.

All of this is to say that I am curious about the question of the relationship between performance and belonging, especially as it relates to race and language. If language is a type of performance—as Baraka seems to allude to in this passage, and as many literary theorists have claimed in the past—then what role does writing play in assimilation or mobility? I’m reminded of Franz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks, or—as a more contemporary example—of Childish Gambino’s “Bonfire” in which he quotes his assumed critics/haters who “[t]old [him he] should just quit: ‘first of all, you talk white!’” The next questions then follow: What exactly does it mean to ‘talk (or write) white’? To what extent are people of color forced to ‘talk white’ or ‘write white’ as a means of survival? To what extent are these conscious or unconscious choices? What are the effects of this performance on the users—psychological, emotional, physical, etc.? How does this compare to language/rituals necessary to perform for class mobility? Are there times when the performance is the opposite, i.e. when people of color perform the racialization thrust upon them by a white supremacist society, and if so, for what purpose, and to what effect (like this Key & Peele sketch:

I look forward to further discussion of these questions in class and on the posting board!

[1] It is worth noting the distinction between issues of class-based social mobility (of which Bourdieu speaks) and race-based mobility (of which Baraka speaks). Nonetheless, I think in the general discussion of mobility and belonging, the similarities are useful here.

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