Masks: Blackness, Race and the Imagination
by Adam Lively
(Chatto & Windus, ISBN 0 7011 6244-9)
Kosovo: the evidence
by Amnesty International
(Amnesty International, ISBN 1873328211)
by Peter Marsden
(Zed Books, ISBN 1 85649 522 1)
Bearing in mind that the idea of difference is central to discussions of race, polarities of opinion on the subject are inevitable. But race is of course more than just one idea and its evolution over the centuries has been complex.
If one is to take on the history of racial attitudes, then, according to writer Adam Lively in Masks, a simple division of the main actors into ‘goodies and baddies… is a way of ignoring plurality and ambiguity’. Shades of grey don’t seem to matter much to propagandist racism and anti-racism, but in truth many people’s experience of racial issues can be ill-defined, multifaceted and contradictory.
Lively’s book traces the influence of ideas of blackness and racial difference in the cultural life of Europe and the United States. Blackness for the purpose of his study is restricted to people of African origin. He focuses on literature – from eighteenth-century pseudoscientific tracts to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and beyond, with nods to music and the visual arts.
Early evolutionists often explained race in terms of chains of beings, moving from vegetable matter through ranks of animals to the European male, who stood at the top of the pile, closest to God. Black people were consequently dehumanized and the idea that they are somehow closer to nature is still current.
Writers both black and white in our own time have puzzled over such ultimately limiting ideas. WEB Du Bois would write of the ‘double consciousness’ of black people, typified by a sense of being observed, of looking at one’s self through the eyes of white society. Blackness becomes a mask, whether it is the sentimentalist’s idea of ‘white’, pure souls shining within black bodies, or the reductive mask of savagery and stupidity; whether it is the schizophrenic experience of ‘passing’ for white recorded by numerous black authors, or the reclamation of the term ‘nigger’ by rappers. Lively sees the contemporary concern with ‘the slipperiness of identity’ gaining sustenance from black cultural traditions of ‘plurality, flexibility, parody’. The issue at the heart of this book is otherness, and at a time when alienation has become commonplace, Lively’s argument for the centrality of black experience in cultural creation carries undeniable weight.
The use of ethnic difference to crush others has been, in recent months, all too painfully experienced in the province of Kosovo. But as Amnesty International’s timely book Kosovo: the evidence shows, Serbian oppression of ethnic Albanians has actually been going on for at least a decade. Since 1987 police torture and ill-treatment, killings and unfair trials and detentions have become commonplace.
While Amnesty’s call for urgent international action to bring the perpetrators to justice is measured and useful, ultimately this book will, and should, arouse feelings of pain, anger and outrage.
Also providing essential background and context to a current crisis is Peter Marsden’s excellent The Taliban. Subtitled War, religion and the new order in Afghanistan, it takes us behind the stereotypes to explore not only what the Taliban is and how it has come to power, but also the knot of issues it raises for Afghanistan, its neighbours and the rest of the world.
For the human-rights conscious international community, the continued and institutionalized denial of basic health and education rights to women and girls has resulted in humanitarian agencies like UNICEF closing down their Afghanistan programmes. Should the Taliban be officially recognized at all, some Westerners ask?
However, the Muslim fundamentalist Taliban is, in part, the creation of the superpowers who meddled, intervened and used Afghanistan and its people to serve their own ends. The legacy is a mess. The Taliban argues that what it is trying to do is restore order by imposing (its own version of) Muslim values.
Marsden picks his way carefully and thoughtfully through the minefield that is his subject matter. He untangles the thorny issue of clashing value systems, but also recognizes the part that self-interest has to play for all the main actors, regardless of their moral proclamations. There are no easy solutions, he readily admits, but he does have suggestions on how to negotiate with the Taliban in a way that might bring about positive change. The prime requisite is good information. This book provides the best launch pad for an understanding of what’s going on in Afghanistan.
Pulling No Punches
by Velvet Fist (Velvet Fist 1 CD)
Rock the Dock
by Various (Creation CRECD 240)
The first album, Pulling No Punches, is made on a shoestring by a 12-strong a capella choir of feminists; while Rock the Dock, featuring the cream of Britain’s current rock scene, pulls together 16 bands whose collective earnings stretch into the multi-millions. The first doesn’t even have a proper label and it’s self-distributed; the second comes from the mighty indie rock stable that nurtured Primal Scream and Oasis. By rights, these two releases are poles apart. And yet they’re not. United by a spirit of justified righteousness they represent a spirit of community and direct action that doesn’t seem to count for much in today’s mainstream music industry.
Coming from good, old-fashioned socialist roots, London-based Velvet Fist have performed their songs — some wryly amusing, others with undoubted power — at CND rallies, peace groups, various Labour Party events. They are an ongoing project, whereas Rock the Dock is very much an ad hoc one designed to raise money to support the 500 Liverpool dockers sacked in 1995 and address the problems that their community faces.
Non-profit making records – and the music contained – have an honourable history. The last 20 years have seen various movements wedding themselves to musical bandwagons. Band Aid is, its paternalist discourses aside, an obvious example; Red Wedge and the punk-led Rock Against Racism and Anti-Nazi League are others.
But the exemplar, in many ways, is the response that artists and musicians gave to the British miners’ strike in the mid-1980s. Organizing benefit after benefit, often in the afflicted villages, it engendered an extraordinary spirit of kinship with many people being changed for ever after. Pulling No Punches harks back to these days. One track does so explicitly: ‘No Going Back’ is a strong call for a recognition of workers’ and women’s rights. Others address different topics, including the well-observed ‘Good Intentions’: a Velvet Fist-penned number dealing with the way we identify with oppression.
It’s no surprise to find that the link figure on both records is Billy Bragg, who’s recently recorded a collection of Woody Guthrie songs. Fist’s rendition of Bragg’s wording to the ‘Internationale’ is a vigorous affair, but to get the man himself, turn to Rock the Dock, where he’s singing out: ‘Never Cross A Picket Line’. And if that’s not good enough, flip through live tracks from Oasis, Dodgy and the Chemical Bothers with some fearsomely great moments from songwriter Beth Orton and a surprisingly quiescent Chumbawumba. Something for everyone.
Pulling No Punches is available from 18 Oakington Avenue, Wembley Park, Middlesex HA9 8HZ, UK.
The Truman Show
directed by Peter Weir
‘I’m thinking about getting out,’ says insurance salesman Truman Burbank to his best friend. Who among us has not voiced that thought or felt that everyone is conspiring against us? But for Truman the move to another city or country – his fantasy destination is Fiji – will be more difficult than for many.
Truman is the star of the longest running TV show in history, now into its thirtieth year – more than 10,000 days non-stop, around the clock. He’s in a documentary where he is the subject. But he himself remains in the dark about this because everything around him is manufactured so that he will live a normal life that we can observe.
Truman’s oddly perfect home is an island community called Seahaven (based on an actual place called Seaside, Florida). Both the real place and Truman’s world are model communities aspiring to the ideals and aesthetic of small-town US. The streets are narrow and traffic-free, the houses set close together. Everyone knows one another. But what may have its middle-class virtues in Florida, becomes in the film a cloying and sinister place totally oppressive even to its star citizen.
Weir’s film is not the first to satirize life in idyllic small towns. Neither will the references to Shakespeare’s Tempest be lost on an audience educated in Western classics. The new twist here is the way in which the critiques of town life and TV get mixed together, giving us actors as villains, conspiring with the audience to deceive the non-actor star. It’s the complete paranoid dystopia.
In an age where Internet surfers were recently treated to the first ‘live’ birth and another virtual couple, and their agent, have promised the first ‘on-camera conception’, Truman’s birth (‘seen live by hundreds of millions’) and his first steps (‘seen in 92 countries’) may not seem far-fetched. In fact, Canada’s Dionne Quintuplets really did live this nightmare in the 1930s. Yanked from their parents and made wards of the State, then set up in a fantasy-town amusement park known as Quint-Land, the young girls were seen by millions of tourists and in constant newsreels.
The Truman Show follows a long line of Hollywood films that satirize television. It’s an easy target, a symbol for much that is wrong with US society. TV is presented as shallow and manipulative, wedded to a moronic and passive audience. Although the audience within the film roots for Truman, it is also titillated by the deception played on him.
All cinema and TV create an illusion of reality. The Truman Show’s satire of that illusion might, however, help an audience question the extremes of dominant cinema.
Dinyar Godrej, Louise Gray, Peter Steven
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird
T H E C L A S S I C
...being the elusive interpreter of freedom.
‘Huh, what happened there?’ was my reaction to the first Annette Peacock song I heard. The song in question, ‘My Mama Never Taught Me How To Cook’ (from X-Dreams, 1978), terrifyingly conflates sex, love and power, and yet makes you want to cheer out aloud by its end. On the serpentine coils of its instrumental phrasing, Peacock travels the distance from a humorous take on her lack of domestic skills that have made her a social outlaw, to the things men want to teach her – the destruction of self-esteem and trust, and the routine expectation of sexual servitude. The latter ventriloquized in her best sultry manner to chilling effect.
Eventually she finds her own voice, gentle and direct, to observe: ‘My destiny is not to serve/ I’m a woman/ My destiny is to create.’ The song suddenly unravels with some freeflowing sax and you’re left wondering how she managed to pull off such twists and turns.
Annette Peacock is one of those rare singers who seem quite naturally to make their own paths – and pay the price of commercial obscurity. Her freeform songs have all the coherence of classical lieder, despite mercurial changes in emotional and musical mood. A self-taught musician, her hallmarks are elusive, unsettling melodies that beg for repeated listening, an ability – as critic Art Lange put it – to ‘invoke intensity through subtraction’, and an unflinching take on relationships worthy of a metaphysical poet.
Launched into the jazz circuit in 1962 with a stint in Albert Ayler’s band, she left to concentrate on her own work. After pioneering performance with synthesizers, she turned down David Bowie’s offer to play for him, preferring to study composition at the Juilliard School of Music. Brooklyn-born, she moved to Britain, living on the breadline, and released her albums through her own Ironic label. A few years ago, she returned to the US, and after a lengthy absence from the music scene is reported to be working on new material.
In many of her songs she articulates the need both to cherish love and have no illusions about it. Within a few words and notes the mood can change from complete engagement, whether ecstatic or disheartened, to a wry, philosophical detachment – and back!
I Have No Feelings (1986) explores this territory in tiny, miraculous songs, virtual hypnotic states anchored by Roger Turner’s perfectly judged free percussion. At the beginning of ‘The Carousel’ Peacock reveals that the reason why relationships can damage us is the fact that we enter them unrehearsed. However, this is not to deny love its power for ‘since I fell/ for love like a child/ it drives me wild’. Indeed rehearsal is to be avoided, as in another song the spark is missing and the lovers are locked in a desperate game. The woman wonders, as she suffers her partner’s endless caressing, whether he is also acting his loving.
Sex for Peacock can be a unifying, natural force; indeed her ecological beliefs are sometimes expressed in sexual terms. It is also the matrix for holding a wide range of political meanings. In one song she advises, only half in jest, that as women have sexual as well as numerical power over men, they should withhold sex until the nukes are done away with. The title of ‘A Loss of Consciousness’ (from The Perfect Release, 1979) refers to people who use lovemaking to blot out engagement with wider political issues. While realizing that ‘life’s hopeful between the thighs’, she seems to grapple constantly with how socially-constructed gender inequality plays itself out in the sexual arena. In ‘Rubber Hunger’, the heroine goes down to The Hardware Store to get some Plastic-fantastic to pleasure herself with, declaring ‘I’m gonna make my own rules’. And in ‘Happy With My Hand’ (from Abstract-Contact, 1988), a relationship-weary Peacock sings, ‘I get no stress/from my own caress’. ‘Real & Defined Androgens’ (X-Dreams) picks up the masturbatory theme from the male point of view, in a prolonged, chundering rock progression. The man is ‘oiling his machine’, looking at ‘air-brushed dreams of perfection’ that distort reality. And yet at the moment of orgasm, there is a certain empathy – ‘We are all slaves to this release/ we reach/ but never possess.’ The song dissolves in a piano spill.
The summation of Peacock’s political beliefs is probably the 14-minute rap ‘Elect Yourself’ (Abstract-Contact) in which she rails against the greed ethic and its commodification of ‘innocence and enthusiasm’, against the refusal of Christians in the US to condemn capitalism, against the selling of ecological rights and the loss of true democracy. Observing that ‘we are intrinsically, intimately alone inside our insistent skin,’ she ends with the sad reflection: ‘Once upon a time there was a people.’
Her enduring contribution to the craft of song is freedom, which is also her prime subject.
Sadly only X-Dreams and The Perfect Release are available (from See For Miles records) at present.