Thursday, November 24, 2016

Celebrating Marlon James and "the Unreliable Narrator"


On Marlon James’ 46th birthday today, I celebrate his artistic expressions in the form of three novels and especially his 64th Annual Charles Eaton Burch Memorial Lecture that he gave at Howard University on Tuesday, April 12th this year.  I learned so much from this lecture that I had to take notes and put them in the context of his important anticolonial messages of his three novels and the critical responses to them.   

His lecture was intended for the students but taught so much to me as a artist.  One of the guiding themes of this lecture for me was his point that he “became obsessed with the unreliable narrator.”  

Unreliable narrators exist ad nauseum in our society run by white supremacist capitalists.  They are all around us, and the unreliable narrators in Marlon’s novels should help us to scrutinize the unreliable narrators in the mainstream media, and the histories that justify colonialism and neocolonialism.  This theme of an “unreliable narrator” shows up most profoundly for me in Marlon’s second and third novels.  

It shows up in the second novel The Book of Night Women because the main narrator Lilith, is a character who, like I messaged Marlon James, desperately wants to integrate and assimilate in a colonial society.  Lilith is extraordinarily unreliable in terms of the values she embraces and rejects.  She embraces the domestic life of a wife of Robert Quinn, an overseer, however she rejects the values that Homer tries to teach her when Homer tries to recruit her to join a rebellion on a Jamaican plantation that is in solidarity with the Haitian revolution.  

When I told Marlon James in person that I had a huge problem with the ways that Lilith identified with the values of a plantation overseer, he said that he had to be true to her, and that in the process of being true to Lilith, he had to write her the way she expressed herself, which was, vying for a marriage to Robert Quinn.  My own desires for Lilith to follow Homer was related to my own desires to see a younger generation resist the colonial norms of U.S. hegemony, especially in terms of identifying with police officers and corporate friendly attorneys like Olivia Pope rather than journalists like Marcus Garvey and Mumia-Abu Jamal. 

This second novel The Book of Night Women has also produced some very profound literary criticism.  I think some of the best literary criticism of this novel has been written by Valerie Orlando and Carol Bailey.  Orlando wrote in an article called “Thiefing Sugar From the Island Beneath the Sea” that “even white women…are corrupted and manipulated by the barbarity of an enslaved environment.  As in Allende’s Beneath the Sea and Jean Rhys’s earlier Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), as well as Rochester’s demented Antillean wife in the attic depicted in Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte, white women go insane from the hostility of the tropical island environment or they are manipulated and abused by white men, which, in turn, hardens them into cruel animals.”  

 Carol Bailey wrote about James’s Lilith that creates an intimacy with a sugar plantation overseer character Robert Quinn in order to stay alive.  She speaks to the ways that ALL JAMAICANS perform on some level in a neocolonial economy in order to stay alive.  Nicole Dennis-Benn’s character in her debut novel "Here Comes The Sun" who works in a hotel also performs in a way similar to the way Lilith is performing.  

This theme of an “unreliable narrator” shows up in Marlon’s third novel A Brief History of Seven Killings in his Papa-Lo character, who is a drug don that conducts a trial of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley.   However he proves himself unreliable when he refuses to put himself on trial and insists on trying to prosecute those who, unlike those with wealth, are unable to have the power to defend themselves.  He considers the audience that he’s talking to “decent people” and claims that as a drug don, he will "eradicate" drugs.

 James is very clear on showing the unreliability of his narrators.  When James spoke at the Burch lecture he said that we as Black writers have to come to terms with the culture that produced the art.  This explained his deep interest in the fiction of Charles Dickens, novelist of Great Expectations.  Even though he praised Dickens’ novels as one that shaped his imagination, he also recognized Dickens as a man who supported the English governor’s murder of those in the Morant Bay Rebellion in the 1860s.  He also mentioned other books “that made me write books” including books by Cormac McCarthy, James Joyce, and The North China Love by Marguerite Duras.  Books that also made him write books include Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, which Nadia Ellis mentioned in her review of A Brief History of Seven Killings.  I honestly had trouble with developing an interest in some of these novelists with such a fixed Western worldview, James’s lecture still encouraged me to read them because we should pretend that their art is their BEST self.  

 The same culture that produced their art, their novel is the same culture that produced the man.  James shared an obvious fascination with many European writers that influenced him, and I couldn’t help but take notice.   

James’s read of Toni Morrison’s Sula I found very interesting.  He said the biggest epiphany he ever had was the last scene in this novel when Nel asks Sula, on her deathbed after she lived a full life, “what do you have to show for it?”  Sula replied “Show?  To Whom?”  James said that reading this part made him fall out of his chair.  James was speaking to the freedom that Sula personified, in not having to live for anybody else but herself.  I thought that that freedom was also liberating.  I think the way that Kokovah Zauditu-Selassie and Susan Neal Mayberry analyze Sula is very interesting to me.   

The lesson James was pointing to in Sula, was her rejection of domestic norms that defied the idea of her “showing” her life or norms of materialism to any other person.   This is the freedom that apparently inspired Marlon’s fiction. 

I am grateful for Marlon James’ fiction and I highly encourage everyone to take a closer look at his work.  I was most grateful for his Burch Lecture at Howard on April 12, 2016. 

This lecture was sponsored by the Department of English at Howard University chaired by Dr. Dana Williams, and run by the Caribbean Studies Program directed by Dr. Curdella Forbes.  And I especially thank Professor Marlon James for sharing his wisdom and experience with the Howard community.  -RF. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Remembering Gwen Ifill and the Demise of Industry Journalism

Gwen Ifill (1955-2016) was an incredible role model to me as a news journalist.  She was not only a journalist, she was a deeply politically educated.  And like myself, a devout Christian.  She taught me that willfully educating oneself on capitalism, socialism, communism or Marx did not diminish one’s identity as a God-fearing believer.  And by God-fearing, I mean a kind of fear that is reverential, not abusing.  Gwen Ifill was also a role model to me as, like myself, the child of Black immigrants who taught their children to be their absolute best, despite the odds.  

Her parents are, like mine, from the English Caribbean, and raised children who are determined to bulldoze perceptions influenced by race.  Yesterday I attended the funeral service of Gwen Ifill at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church on M Street in Washington, DC, and I was most struck by the part of the service where her cousin Sherrilyn Ifill said that hers “was the most American of success stories.”  I was amazed looking at how strongly the congregation at this service stood and clapped in agreement with this point.  Over the past week since her passing, I studied the life of Gwen Ifill, and I was most struck by her ability to be what the mainstream calls as “objective” as possible.  She is most famous perhaps for her role as a television news reporter and a vice presidential debate moderator.  In the many videos and articles she wrote, I found that there was a marked difference between her journalism and the journalism of an Ida B. Wells, Pauline Hopkins, and Marcus Garvey that I am also reading at this time: the difference between an advocacy journalist and an industry journalist.  

I realized that I am impressed with Gwen Ifill’s life, along with those in the memorial service because of her incredibly influential work as an industry journalist.  Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World And Me that he was GIVEN the art of journalism by white editors, like Gwen Ifill was.  However Wells, Hopkins, and Garvey saw Jim Crow and CREATED their own journalism that was intended to end Jim Crow.  Industry journalists essentially have to follow the dictates of their editors whom, of course, are beholden to the industrialists that employ them.  At Ms. Ifill’s funeral spoke Sharon Percy Rockefeller who is the chairwoman of WETA television station that aired the weekly show Ifill hosted for over a decade.  

Ms. Rockefeller is a member according to Wikipedia of the Bilderberg Group, which represents what Lorraine Hansberry has called “titan of the system.”  Advocacy journalist Luke Rudkowski interviewed other industry journalists like Charlie Rose about the Bilderberg Group.  Their funders make key assumptions that ultimately justify key aspects of U.S. industry:  military occupations, justify military spending and justify corporate tax cuts.  Although Gwen Ifill was a key role model for any Black women on television aspiring to be a news journalist, the questions and statements she made on television for the most part justified U.S. industry.  

Ms. Ifill asked Hillary Clinton on PBS Newshour in 2014 whether she can see a scenario where Vladimir Putin can “step back” from the Russian border with the Ukraine.  However this basically ASSUMED that the U.S. military should intervene in Ukraine when this country has much more pressing needs than staging a military occupation of Ukraine in order to weaken Russia.  Lenin wrote about the fallacy of the “Freedom of Criticism” charge within Ukraine in What Is To Be Done?  Too often, this charge justifies supporting those causes funded by capitalists.  The United States nation has more pressing needs like stopping the mass incarceration of Black people; like ending the public school closures that feed the school-to-prison pipeline.  Much more important concerns than making sure Putin and Russia do not control Ukraine.  Ms. Ifill’s question was a question that assumed the necessity of U.S. military intervention in Ukraine when it shouldn’t have.  Ms. Ifill assumes that the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) occupation of Ukraine funded by U.S. taxpayer dollars should remain, even though, as Paul Robeson said in 1960, NATO is an organization that is fascist in content.  This means it is an organization that prioritizes colonialism over democracy. 

Peter Hart writes in 2013 about Ms. Ifill’s assumption that justifies a siege on Iran.  He writes that in the PBS Newshour on 1/28/13, she referred to concerns about the “threat posed by Iran’s  nuclear program” which again wrongfully assumes that Iran’s nuclear program is in fact a threat.  This is an assumption that U.S. industry depends on in order justify a military intervention in Iran which President Obama was able to avoid.  The International Atomic Energy Agency did not arrive at that conclusion.  

In her 2011 interview with the American Archive of Television, Ifill explained her allegiance to the industry when she said that she could not report a story that Jim Lehrer would not approve.  She said he was “pretty rigid about what he wanted the news to be.”  And that he “surrounded himself with people who thought…the same way.”  By "rigid" Ms. Ifill basically means accomodationist or compatible with hegemony.  Lehrer was reportedly “seething” for being passed over as a presidential debate moderator for being too “safe.”  He basically taught Gwen Ifill the same thing even though, at her memorial Judy Woodruff said Ifill “hated superficial journalism.”  When former Attorney General Eric Holder spoke, he said “we called each other cousins…because of our shared island history…We come from Barbados.”  Holder played a key role in turning a blind eye to the human rights atrocities committed by the Chiquita banana company, which is a successor to the United Fruit Company that advocacy journalist Marcus Garvey worked in Honduras and Costa Rica to undermine.  

Holder was the proverbial Prospero to the United Fruit Company’s Caliban and helped the colonizer maintain control.  Ifill’s father is Panamanian-Barbadian whereas her mother, like both of Eric Holder’s parents are from Barbados.  Barbados has a special role in the history of the Eastern Caribbean.  It is closest to Africa and it is widely known as having the most literate population of Caribbean islands.  It has uniquely answered the question of independence since the Garvey movement with a resounding no.  Its government and people have asserted that it is more advantageous to remain a colony of the United Kingdom.  However most related to the roles of Gwen Ifill and Eric Holder to U.S. industry to me is the role that the leader of Barbados played during the Grenadian revolution from the year I was born, 1979, to 1983.  According to the revolution’s press, the Free West Indian,

“the relation of forces against Grenada was strengthened considerably by late 1980s with the accession to power of Eugenia Charles in Dominica, Edward Seaga in Jamaica, and Ronald Reagan in the U.S.  Three newly elected leaders, together with Tom Adams from Barbados, kept up a sustained onslaught against the PRG [People’s Revolutionary Government] of Grenada which was to culminate in the United States invasion of October 1983.” 
One of the leaders of this revolution, Maurice Bishop said:

“we remember the Barbadian newspaper, the Beacon, that was going around carrying these articles, saying how our Cuban comrades, the internationalist workers in our country, were in our country, were in Grenada exploiting our women…and when the facts were sent to the Beacon, that too never get published, because that is what they mean by freedom of the press.”

Bishop’s criticism of the press in Barbados trying to scare its citizens into fearing Grenada is similar to Lenin’s critique of the press in Kiev trying to scare its citizens into fearing the Soviet bloc.  I noticed how those who sided with reporting lies to justify U.S. industry are basically industry journalists who tell the industry side of the story, in this case, the lie that Cuban men were exploiting Grenadian women in order to stoke fear in the readers about the socialist society in Grenada.  Hegemony plays on male domination over women's bodies in numerous cases.  It was clear that before this U.S. invasion, industry journalists cozy with the leadership of Tom Adams justified and created the pretext for military occupation the way that industry journalists’ reporting justified military occupation in Ukraine and Iran.  

Don Rojas wrote that "the imperialist power, with their policy of 'divide and rule' have used historical factors [along language lines--some of us speaking English, others Spanish, French, or Dutch] to keep us weak, insular, dependent, poor and backward."  This could be argued about all countries that cooperated with the U.S. to undermine Grenada from 1979 to 1983.  And Industry Journalists that supported this undermining.  Barbados decision not to be independent seemed to leave them no other choice.  

Gwen Ifill is an example of a professional who was NOT weak, NOT insular, NOT poor, or NOT backward, however she worked in a news industry that depends on most Black people in the world remaining so; a news industry that crushes socialist revolution.  Eric Holder worked in a government that did the same thing.  Industry journalists (like colonies) make assumptions that the industry (or mother country) wants them to make, whereas advocacy journalists like Pauline Hopkins (1859-1930) don’t.  

I am interested in how industry journalists have to remain industry in order to eat.  And the difficulty in advocacy journalists being able to eat.  There is a certain freedom in creating your own headlines instead of being forced to report headlines given to you by liberals like Jim Lehrer, or even Rupert Murdoch.  Advocacy journalists like Marcus Garvey and Ida B. Wells called attention to the most glaring inequalities of Jim Crow in ways that cost their overall health.  

Being an advocate requires sacrifice and a willingness to challenge the lockstep march of U.S. industry and U.S. imperialism. Where Hopkins was questioning the growth of U.S. imperialism, Gwen Ifill’s questions seem to assume it.  

When the memorial service congregation applauded Gwen Ifill being “a model American story,” what exactly were they applauding?  The fact that journalists like Gwen Ifill should continue avoiding the more difficult questions that promote division of Black and brown people like the division the U.S. promoted between Grenada and other Eastern Caribbean islands?  The necessity of U.S. industry to continue by depending on tokens like myself and like other industry journalists to justify military occupations? 

We need advocacy journalists like Glen Ford, Margaret Kimberley, and Tim Black more than ever today who CREATE their headlines, instead of following the dictates and assumptions of U.S. industry.  We are going to depend more and more on advocacy journalism now that Trump is going to be president.  We must create and disseminate arguments against justifying budget cuts especially since the biggest cause of budget deficits are capital gains tax cuts.  We must defend Social Security.  DOING SO WILL REQUIRE A DEMISE OF INDUSTRY JOURNALISM.  

My growth away from being an industry journalist paralleled my growth away from the A.M.E. church that I as a Christian left because I asked leaders of two different A.M.E. churches I attended whether they would marry same gender couples and they honestly said no.  I appreciate their honesty and their taking the time to inform me personally about why they would not marry me, however, as a same gender loving individual, I have a growing disaffection for churches who try to convince me about the love of God, but are unable to celebrate that love within a life partnership because of intolerance and a very conservative interpretation of a document that was once used to justify the enslavement my ancestors.  

My growing disaffection for the A.M.E. church is like my growing disaffection for industry journalism that accommodates mass incarceration and austerity.  I would rather join a church which chart their OWN path to marrying couples regardless of their gender, instead of following the conservative path laid out for them like industry journalists have done.  Robert Frost’s poem said “two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”   –RF.