Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Jonathan Scott Holloway's "Jim Crow Wisdom"

Jonathan Scott Holloway is professor of history, African American studies, and American studies at Yale University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America since 1940, and reported the following:
"Open your book to page ninety-nine and…the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."


Funny thing, when I opened my book to page ninety-nine I found that it featured a central theoretical claim in the work and that it offered a distillation of the book's unorthodox methodology. In this case, both the claim and the method relate to a still image from the 1970 movie Watermelon Man (the image itself is on page 100). I describe my first encounter with the image this way:
I do not remember if my brother called me into the family room to watch another seminal moment in the era's cinematic cultural race battles, but I recall being there all the same. Previously, at my brother's invitation, I had seen John Shaft give the white man the finger and, in doing so, create entirely new ways to read the black body. My only memory of this second moment—of the entire film, in fact—is an image of a black man sitting in a bathtub filled with gallons upon gallons of milk.
The person in question is dark-skinned actor Godfrey Cambridge. In Watermelon Man—"a social commentary clothed in a comedy built on a fantastical premise"—Cambridge plays Jeff Gerber, a bigoted insurance salesman who wakes up one morning to discover that he has turned black, very black. (Cambridge is in white face for the first fifteen minutes of the film.) This milk bath is one of Gerber's last desperate efforts to become white again.

This page is from a chapter that explores how the black body—fingers, arms, skin—serves as a repository of traumatic memory. Also on this page I am writing in the first person, a voice that is interspersed throughout the book to highlight how official narratives of the past (history) collide with personal narratives (memory). In Jim Crow Wisdom I examine the consequences of these collisions.

On page ninety-nine we bear witness to Gerber's trauma when he discovers his sense of self did not align with others' assessment of how his new, black body would be allowed to navigate the waters of mainstream America. By this point in the film, moviegoers could see that Gerber was sliding toward madness as he realized that he lacked control over the process of narration.

My book explores black memory from many angles—popular literature, social science, dance, the built environment, memoir, and film—and asks critical questions about who gets to write and claim those memories and what's at stake in the process. For Jeff Gerber, the story his body told others (and the presumptions of black memories that were subsumed in his skin) revealed the traumas of a second-class citizenship. For others, people who were black their entire lives, the consequences of these conflicting narratives were so patently obvious and negative that they could not afford the luxury even of the mistaken hope that bathtubs filled with milk could solve their problems.
Learn more about Jim Crow Wisdom at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue