Saturday, January 20, 2007

More Thoughts on Bubba Sparxxx

I thought I might do a little bit of work on the theme of Bubba Sparxxx's music as the staging of a particular kind of public event: a ritual of racial reconciliation. We are by now familiar with other (mostly non-pop music) media versions of these events, such as the famous 1996 Oprah Little Rock Nine reunion. Oprah coordinated a televised meeting of seven of the nine now-grown black children who were barred from entering a Little Rock, Arkansas high school in 1957 by racist white mobs and Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus, and a few of their penitent white tormentors.

It isn't hard to find other recent examples of these rituals, many of which are arranged to mark anniversaries of traumatic moments in the long struggle for civil rights for blacks in the United States. I wonder if there is a difference between these rituals, which aim to resolve outstanding historical grievances, and others that emerge from more or less current or contemporary outbreaks of racial violence. We can think of the Ted Koppel "America in Black and White" televised town hall meeting (which PBS aired as part of its "P.O.V." series in January, 2003) staged to reconcile black and white citizens of Jasper, Texas as a prime example of this second category. Jasper was the site of the 1998 death-by-dragging of James Byrd, a black resident of the town, by three white men in a pickup truck. (This incident also provoked Christian Marclay's brilliant video piece "Guitar Drag," one of the finest "political" artworks of recent years).

It seems that the recent media coverage of "ghetto fabulous" parties held by white students at southern universities should be understood in light of this genre. In fall 2006, some University of Texas law students held such an event, at which, according to the AP story, "partygoers carried 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor and wore Afro wigs, necklaces with large medallions and name tags bearing traditionally black and Hispanic names". Austin, which always seemed like a pretty racially fucked-up place to me when we lived there (despite its mostly unearned and inflated reputation as a liberal haven) has had a long tradition of racist frat culture. The same AP story cited above concludes with a reminder that in 2004, UT had to institute sweeping changes to rehabilitate its reputations after a rash of racist incidents on campus were reported, including the egging of a Martin Luther King Jr. statue and "fraternity parties where blacks were portrayed in Jim Crow racial stereotypes."

Just this weekend, Fox News has been hyping a similar story, but more explicitly massaging the "reconciliation" angle. Students at Tarleton State University (in Stephenville, Texas) held a racist Martin Luther King day party, at which they rehearsed the most cliched and degrading stereotypes of black culture: fried chicken, gang sign flashing, Aunt Jemima costumes, malt liquor, ad nauseum. Within hours, the story changed from outrage at the behavior of the undergrads to footage of black students publicly forgiving the offending partiers, and awkwardly hugging repentant revelers. The implicit message, of course, is that it is the responsibility of black students to help heal their racist classmates; any footage of students who might have felt that 4 minutes was not long enough to move from anger to conciliation was left on the cutting-room floor. In regard to these "ghetto fabulous" parties we should recall Michael Rogin's eloquent analysis of racial mimesis as psychic surgery. "Blackface," Rogin wrote, "heals" America's racial division "in allowing whites playfully to expropriate blacks under conditions of hierarchical, interracial harmony" ('Democracy and Burnt Cork': The End of Blackface, The Beginning of Civil Rights," Representations 1999, 6).

The most potent example of collegiate race hatred is, of course, the case of Duke lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting an African-American stripper hired to entertain at an off-campus party. It is now apparent that the DA royally screwed the case up, and the media spin has thus been of the backlash "poor white boys" variety. There will be no conciliatory group hug in Raleigh-Durham. Whatever else eventually comes out in the wash, we will be left with the bitter image of big (northeastern prep school) men on (a southern) campus enjoying the sexual performances of poor African-American strippers, about whom they said some of the most degrading things I have ever read.

In this light, three features of Bubba Sparxxx-as-purveyor-of-racial-reconciliation stand out. First, Sparxxx articulates a shared sense of southern "enjoyment" that crosses racial lines and heals historical wounds. Implicit in Sparxxx's music and public image is the notion that southerners "enjoy themselves" in a unique way, and that whites and blacks can overcome history through collective participation in this culture of enjoyment. This faith in the emancipatory power of shared cultural participation was at the core of the Coen Brothers's O Brother Where Art Thou and the vogue for Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music
upon its CD reissue. Recall that the blind white Mississippi disc jockey in O Brother was unable to distinguish between white and black musicians, and that one of the pleasures of the Anthology is the beguiling racial indeterminacy of so many of the artists. It is not surprising that Sparxxx used O Brother's opening chain-gang escape scene as a motif in his video for "Deliverance."

Of equal importance, however, is the second feature of Sparxxx's work: his creative use of history, broadly conceived, as a crucial tool of utopian imaginative work. This is not peculiar to Sparxxx: from Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast's speakasy fantasy Idlewild to Virginia rapper Missy Elliot's evocation of a sepia-toned past in the video for "Pass the Dutch," southern hip-hop writ large is marked by an interest in creative reneogtiations of history.

The final dimension of Sparxxx's conciliatroy project is his articulation of southern white working-class identity. Not simply another version of mimetic "blackface," Sparxxx's persona speaks to desires for a white working-class identity resistant to (or at least unsullied by) the reactionary "whiteness" that has dominated the American imagination for centuries. There is a profound sense in Sparxxx's music that this work is preparatory to a final racial reconciliation between southern blacks and whites. Vh1's brilliant "The White Rapper Show" seems to be erected on similar foundations.

The million dollar question, however, is this: where are the women in all of these rituals of racial reconciliation? The answer requires a whole separate post, which is forthcoming. Even the most cursory analysis would nevertheless reveal that women are not merely absent from the efforts by southern white men to work out their anxieties and guilt. On the contrary, they are central. The exploitation of women, black and white, seems to be at the core of these efforts to repair the historic antagonism between southern whites and blacks. For that reason, tragically, the net benefits of the work of Sparxxx and his fellow travelers, which could be profound, are more likely to be negligible.

Hey SB. My knowledge of Bubba Sparxxx is limited, so I don't have much to offer regarding him, and I don't have anything original to say about blackface, though it is no doubt a fascinating subject.

I do think, however, that the racial politics of "white" country music have never been properly explored. The once-blacked-up Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills are certainly two of the most influential "fathers" of what we call country today, and it's hard, for me at least, to listen to their songs without thinking about the weird intersection of blackness, whiteness, and Southerness.

Speaking of Wills and Rodgers makes me think of Merle Haggard, who labored mightily to keep both men's reputations front and center with his magnificent tribute records "Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player" and "Same Train, Different Time."

One aspect about Merle that used to be a major part of his rep but that often goes unremarked these days is his bizarre politics. Who has any clue as to what the man believes? From "I'll Be A Hero When I Strike" and "Okie From Muskogie" to his plethora of homeless songs to "I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver" to his latter-day criticisms of Dubya, Haggard's politics are all over the place.

That said, he also wrote at least a couple of songs celebrating progressive racial attitudes. (This holds especially true when you consider his audience and the time period.) The interracial marriage tune "Irma Jackson"; the, oh I dunno, slavery recognition? white guilt? anti-gentrification? song "Uncle Lem"; the weird "White Boy Singing the Blues."

He even made a great tribute record to both blackface artist Emmett Miller (the author of "Lovesick Blues") and Southern African-American music in general: "I Love Dixie Blues . . . So I Recorded in New Orleans."

I'm not quite sure what that all means but there it is.

And Austin, btw, is a sad place compared to what it once was. It really was once a town full of freaks, and even some meaningful liberal politics exemplified by the Texas Observer. Alas, such is no more and now it's just full of Yuppies. (The Observer is, thankfully, still around.) In the town I grew up in, you were more likely to see Roky Erickson on the street (or see some kind of lefty protest, for that matter) than see a Republican or a person wearing a necktie. Hell, I didn't even meet a Republican till I was 25.

Austin's own Big Boys recorded the two greatest anti-frat songs ever--"Frat Cars" and "Gator Fucking." UT should play those two slabs of wax at every freshman orientation.
SB, Here's a couple of articles you might find interesting from the local Austin rags.

The first is about East Side rappers. I remember a couple of these dudes from my years working at MusicMania, which is kind of the commercial center of Austin hip-hop. The TAZ conceit is a bit goofy but it's good to read about such an underreported part of Austin's music scene.

And this is a (bad) review of a new book about white rappers.

(I'm not sure if my links will show up on Blogger, and I'm dumb to figure out how to fix them. Sorry about that.)
After the hurricaine we had some students from new orleans at our house and they told us that the frats there have "old south" parties where they dress up in historical costumes and hire poor black people to pick cotton in the back yard.

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