Books

'White Girls': How Black Men and Women Have Confronted White Privilege

Hilton Als’ gift is his reinvention of famous figures, but from the angle of how well they succeeded or failed to confront white supremacy and privilege, or in their (in)abilities to give blacks a voice.


White Girls

Publisher: McSweeney's
Length: 300 pages
Author: Hilton Als
Price: $24.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-11
Amazon

I have read a lot of books in public places, but I don't think I have ever been judged so much by others as when I noticed people giving me quizzical, even bitter glances, as I sat reading White Girls, the latest collection of essays by Hilton Als, the longtime writer and critic for The New Yorker. The irony, of course, is that the title has little to do with the book, which sort of makes sense, since Als' M.O. is not a polemic on the "evils" of white women or even white privilege, but rather critical analysis of how black men and women have confronted white privilege, culturally, sexually and sociologically.

In his 5 December 2013 review of White Girls for The Chicago Tribune, Michael Robbins believed that the last third of the book would qualify as "the best book of the year," but that the first 90 pages was a "meandering memoir" that he "slogged through with increasing boredom and frustration."

I read Als very differently. While the first 94 pages comprised a memoir on race and relationships titled "Tristes Tropiques" that was at times enervating, I also found it to be brutally honest, especially on the challenges that Als believed he and his partners faced as black gay men, particularly in confronting AIDS.

However, the final third of the book that Robbins found so delightful was, for me, a confusing and bewildering trek. While the subject matter of the essays seems fairly easy to discern – Richard Pryor, Buddy Ebsen, Andre Leon Talley, Louise Brooks and Jean-Michel Basquiat – reading Als work is fraught with difficulty, most notably in his Faulknerian tendency of moving from third person to first person and then back with seemingly no indication of an impending transition.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the essays "I Am the Happiness of This World" and "You and Whose Army?" In the former, Als writes about Louise Brooks, the American silent film star, and then becomes Brooks, writing in the first person; in the latter, Als begins the essay in first person as a voiceover artist for adult films, then becomes Richard Pryor's sister, and then becomes Als again, writing about Virginia Woolf whom he refers to as "Suicide Bitch".

Als really shines in the middle portion of this collection, where, over the course of five consecutive essays, he uses Flannery O'Connor, Gone with the Wind, , Eminem and Michael Jackson, to mount one of the most charged attacks on the white establishment that has ever been penned. Als' gift is his reinvention of famous figures, but from the angle of how well they succeeded or failed to confront white supremacy and privilege, or in their (in)abilities to give blacks a voice.

While Gone with the Wind incurs a good deal of wrath from Als, he has the same opinion of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and views Harriet Beecher Stowe just as negatively as Margaret Mitchell. Regarding O'Connor as an "American master", Als suggests that the public today "often overlook the originality and honesty of her portrayal of Southern whiteness, Or, rather, Southern whiteness as it chafed under its biggest cultural influence – Southern blackness." In other words, says Als, "O'Connor delighted in portraying the forms of domestic terrorism."

In his essays, "GWTW" and "Philosopher or Dog", Als' aims his flail of evisceration first at the world of white editors, "who constitute what we call Publishing." They hire black writers who are asked to describe race in "cartoon proportions, thereby making the coon situation 'clear' to a white audience." But then, Als goes after the very same black writers, to ask why so many, so easily spend their careers writing on race, without challenging the establishment.

White Girls is more than just a collection of essays on race and sexuality. It's more than "just" literary and cultural criticism. It's a volume of fine, albeit confusing, writing by a man who refuses to be boxed in to any one genre. The only way to end this review is with a quote from Als himself, who has this to say about compromise:

Writers of a color write stupidly on this wall of race for the approval of very stupid people who, in granting their approval, may decide not to kill you. If these stupid people decide not to kill you, something must be compromised, given up. Generally, what is compromised is one's voice. That voice – it is all a writer has.

7
Music


Books


Film


Recent
By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.

Music

Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."

Music

David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.

Music

On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.

Music

Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.

Music

Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.

Music

Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."

Music

Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Music

The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.