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Thursday, February 4, 2016

=book recently read: Juice! by Ishmael Reed=

This novel is characterized as "faction" which means it enables Ishmael Reed to proselytize, propagandize, philosophize, prophesize & just plain make shit up to prove his point—his point being that you cannot remove the racism from American society any more than you can excise the heart from a human body & expect it to survive—racism is not just an integral organ of our society, it's one of its main driving forces!

Harsh a judgment as this may seem, Reed makes a strong case—as if even a cursory reading of American history doesn't itself make a strong enough case—that it's perfectly true. Forget about the damning & deliberate extermination of the Native American. Consider that almost a hundred years after the Declaration of Independence is signed, America is still a slave-owning nation. A hundred years after slavery is abolished, a black person still cannot eat at the same lunch counter, sleep in the same hotel, go to the same school, or pee into the same urinal as a white person. America—the freest country in the history of the world, the country where all men (lets not even talk about women, gays, & transpeople) are created equal? When? When was this anything more than a dream, an ideal, an advertising slogan?

Ten years ago I would have poo-poohed Reed's hyper-militant stance as opportunistic exaggeration, if not downright paranoia, but Ive now seen enough cellphone videos of cops dragging unarmed black people out of cars and beating them to the street within an inch of their lives, gunning them down in the back, strangling them, planting incriminating evidence on their unconscious bodies, tasering them, clubbing them, stopping, frisking, and harassing them, reporting their "accidental" deaths while handcuffed in custody to shamefacedly acknowledge that—jeezus—maybe they were telling the truth all along. That they really were minding their own business when the cops swooped down on them. That they weren't reaching for a knife or going for a gun. That they had their hands up. That they were pleading "don't shoot."What didn't we see in  the age before everyone was armed with a handheld video recorder & a Twitter account? 

The problem with being a relatively decent sort of person—a person who strives for the self-awareness necessary to resist even deep-seated, often unconscious, culturally induced forms of racism—is that you cannot imagine people—and law enforcement officers, no less—being such miserable, cowardly, racist shits that they'd do the kinds of things they've been accused of doing to members of minority communities for decades now.  When you at last see how naive you've been, you really feel like a dumb-ass! Suddenly it occurs to you—when the barricades go up, which side are the cops always on? They're on the side of the slave owners, the factory owners, the bankers, the government, the rich and the powerful. That should tell you all you need to know. Its so freaking obvious—in retrospect. How on earth did you miss it up to now?
Once I would have argued, as many still do, along the lines of "why can't they put their hands ups and their tails between their legs and just do what the cops tell them, turn meek and submissive, like I would?" Well, why can't they? Maybe because they have more backbone, more self-respect, more personal dignity than I do—and/or maybe their backbone, self-respect, and personal dignity is so perpetually besieged, so burdened under the poverty, disrespect, and lack of opportunity they must shoulder on a daily basis that there's no margin left, no capacity to bear another straw. And maybe they haven't sexually alchemized their boundary problems, their self-respect issues, their old traumas, their past abuse, and their fear of adults as I have into a lifelong adult masochistic submissiveness; maybe they don't get turned-on fantasizing about authority figures, such as cops, taking advantage of them, handcuffing them, rendering them as powerless physically as they always feel psychologically, forcing them to their knees, pulling out their genitals and telling them to suck it, bitch, suck it…like I do. Which leads me to wonder—how many rightwing law-and-order zealots are secretly—consciously or unconsciously—harboring similar fantasies? Is that why they seem to have such a hard-on for authority—or a weak-kneed hankering for the hard-on of authority? They want to force the black man to his knees so they don't have to acknowledge the darker flip side urge: which is to have the black man force them to their knees. Is it for the dark dark unmentionable—unthinkable—shame of the latter that they overcompensate, succumb to a trigger-happy, lynch-mob mentality masquerading as Law-n-Order? 
Yeah, I wonder. 

Reed uses the three-ring circus of O.J. Simpson trials—the criminal trial where he was acquitted of murder, the civil trial where he was found guilty of liability in the deaths of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, and the trial where they finally "got him" on a trumped-up charge of armed robbery—a case of entrapment where he was set-up—in the opinion of Reed (and others, including me)—to prove that America is still divided along racial lines, that white folks still demonize black men, and that the punishment for any black man who dares to step outside the boundaries permitted him is still a lynching of one sort or another. In the case of OJ, the lynching was a long-drawn affair carried out not just in the courtrooms but in the media, which, to this day, drags him out to flog every so often, because flogging OJ is good entertainment and even better business. Just the way slavery was good for business back in the good ole days.

In Reed's view, OJ made it okay to be a racist again. He gave racism a rationale, a reasonable raison d'ĂȘtre. He was the slaveholder's worst nightmare come true: the violent, oversexed black man unchained, stealing the white man's chattel of blonde women, impregnating them with mulatto offspring who'd soon overrun their  world. OJ was King Kong without the white man's happy ending—King Kong still enthroned, breaking Fay Wray in half when he was through with her, continuing his reign of mayhem unchecked by white Christian law. At the same time, Reed dishes the gossip that was suppressed as too harsh for public consumption, that didn't fit the simple black-and-white narrative we were supposed to swallow whole. That Nicole Simpson wasn't quite the innocent mom & fun-girl she was made out to be; that she cavorted with known mob hit men and others of that unsavory ilk. That Ron Goldman wasn't just a hard-working waiter at a pizza restaurant but a known drug courier to the wealthy and famous. Reed challenges the notion that these untasty morsels should be withheld from public consumption out of respect for the victims (ie. Let's not blame the victim!).  Because to his way of thinking OJ is a victim, too, and he's been spared nothing. While illegal wars were planned and hatched in the Middle East, while bankers were destroying the American economy and rewarded for their trouble with bailouts, OJ's crucifixion served to distract us. While, at the very worst, he killed two people, the American government was busy killing a million people in Iraq and herding millions of black males into prison and poverty here at home. So long as the OJ circus was in town, no one seemed to notice.

Juice! is a big, tasty, gossipy, roman-a-clef tale. It's funny and fun to read. As serious as Reed's  project may be in Juice!, his weapon his satire and his novel is meant to be read as such. No doubt Reed exaggerates the black and white of the issues in order to better delineate and demolish his targets. But at least he makes no bones about it. His main character, Paul Blessings, aka Bear, is blustering, headstrong, selfish, self-righteous, intolerant of dissension, and a knee-jerk, reactionary homophobe to boot. In fact, he's really something of an asshole. He unapologetically calls gay people "fags." He thinks feminists and LGBT activists are stealing the thunder of the real victims of American injustice: black people. He's a jealous guardian of black victimization.  Blessing has other pet peeves: conceptual art. Rap. Non-linear fiction. Graffiti writers masquerading as so-called artists, ala Basquiat. Novels in which authors write themselves in as characters, like Ishmael Reed does in Juice! It's hard to pinpoint Reed's actual point of view—is he really as much of a homophobic, cultural/artistic dinosaur as Bear? Or is he just having fun at his own expense and our mystification? That Reed leaves you in doubt as to how much of his novel is truth, how much is fiction, how much of Bear is Reed and how much Reed disapproves of what to this reader are Bear's faults and limitations are proof of his still-furious, edgy artistry. 

Juice! offers an important dissident critique of America—something all too rare and all too often discouraged during our current renaissance of repressive, pro-military, nationalistic, patriotic hoo-ha. One thing Reed is all-too-painfully-aware of is that he's part of an old guard reluctantly passing the torch as its members pass away—reluctantly, because Reed and his cohorts seem to be justifiably doubtful that there's anyone waiting to whom they can entrust that torch. And god forbid it ever goes out. Because the plague of ignorance is dormant everywhere. The Dark Ages are always closer than anyone thinks.

Devil, martyr, whipping-boy, nigger-in-the woodpile: Orenthal James Simpson.
He must be innocent of something.

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