Brown: The Last Discovery of America
Viking, 234 pages, $24.95
Being brown ain’t what it used to be. In the bad old days, there was no affirmative action. There was no bilingual education. California supported legislation harsh to Mexican nationals. There wasn’t even a Cesar Chavez. Today, however — hey, wait a minute! Same as it ever was. Chicanos expend their share of fear and loathing on Richard Rodriguez, the mad prophet of self-determination and self-identification. His many sins are not forgiven. “Hunger of Memory,” his first memoir (and the opening salvo of a trilogy culminating here with “Brown”), is still seen as a sop offered to the Rush Limbaugh crowd, a betrayal of — what, I’m not sure. But, he is often accused of aiding and abetting the very forces that engineered the reverses we have recently suffered.
Rodriguez argued many things in that book, but most memorable to his supporters and enemies alike was his stance against what he seemed to regard as the cuddly racism of social programs designed to give cultural assistance to minorities. It could be argued that the very notion of giving the poor brown folk a hand was bigoted, a kind of White Man’s Burden in action. He criticized the basic efficacy of such things as bilingual education. We accused him of being a Reaganite Spy in the House of Brown.
Later, the troubling revelation that bilingual education was apparently failing — and its subsequent scuttling across the country — was a pyrrhic victory, at best, for Rodriguez. Having someone call you right doesn’t perforce lead to celebration. For all his unfairly attributed neo-con reputation as an assimilationist, Rodriguez defiantly celebrates the “browning of America” (a term that sounds like an ad for Maximum Freshness Tide).
It is not always easy to decode his dense message, but Rodriguez is hardly an apologist for “the dominant culture,” as we like to say in colleges. His uncompromising rhetoric can cause his more heated readers to pull the trigger before thinking. And if you’re going to read Richard Rodriguez, you have to think.
(I knew it! Grab the cell phone, pound out the number of Centro Cultural de La Raza. Homies! Richard Rodriguez is a tio taco! He hates himself and us!)
I quote: “Apart from stool sample, there is no browner smear in the American imagination than the Rio Grande.” Well, ouch. But Rodriguez is, of course, not saying we’re human sewage; he’s saying the United States often sees us this way. Big difference.
Rodriguez is an intellectual. He’s an exacting prose stylist. And he’s a contrarian. He would skewer any idea, any shibboleth, to make a point — an elegant point. The guy’s a gadfly in the tradition of Stanley Fish, a cultural critic who wrestles the entire population of the nation and all of its assumptions. By Page 30 of “Brown,” Rodriguez has tackled Alexis de Tocqueville, Sept. 11, the effects of slavery, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in “The Defiant Ones,” the Lone Ranger, the N-word, Frederick Douglass, Helen Keller, “American Bandstand,” Malcolm X and Mabel Mercer. To name a few. You’d better make sure your reading glasses are clean, because you’re in for some amazed squinting.
Fight back. Richard Rodriguez wants you to fight back. He argues that brown is erotic, it is the permanent stain of eros (conquistador and native, slave and master). Eros requires a certain friction. Friction makes heat. No page of this book is offered to you without its challenge to respond. Disagree. Then learn the many avenues of argument and go write your own book.
He baldly states that he’d like his “act” to be weird: “An old brown man walking the beach, speaking ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ ” Add T.S. Eliot to the list of flitting spirits evoked by this eccentric ritual.
If one fails to see the humor in the Old-Beaner-Declaims-Eliot-on-the-Beach scene, then one will miss a favored trope of the cultural critic, the sense of nearly absurd mental play. (This is strongly apparent in America, from Mark Twain to Busta Rhymes.)
Rodriguez is a laff riot, in a kind of moderniste way. He peppers his book with winks.
To begin with, he is hardly a lil’ old brown man trundling down the beach like some Charlie Chaplin figure. (Carlos Chaplin?) And he makes assertions that are so sly as to slide by the careless reader: The Lone Ranger and Tonto are an erotic couple, you see. Rodriguez even uses intellectual rhetoric to hoist intellectualism: “Tonto — had gravitas.” Har har.
Sending out his dispatches and second book (“Days of Obligation”) from San Francisco, Rodriguez further astonished his critics by coming out. A gay man. Like all his revelations, this one was written in elegant essays. We recoiled again. Suddenly, we were guilty of the things we’d laid on him. We were some kind of intolerant, conservative crew — we couldn’t make room for a dissenting voice, and, frankly, we’d rather not deal with a queer. His word: “As a queer Catholic Indian Spaniard at home in a temperate Chinese city in a fading blond state in a post-Protestant nation, I live up to my sixteenth-century birth.”
Dense. Frank. Funny. And sad, all at once. Oops, hardly a Ronald Reagan anti-humanist, after all.
One may not pigeonhole Richard Rodriguez, which might be the point of this entire meditation. Who am I, if I am brown? This book is inclusive: There is implied argument that Asian-Americans, African-Americans and indigenous people are brown. Not just “Hispanics.” (Whose panic? His panic!) “Queers”? Blues and jazz singers? Rappers? Writers?
In one of his snarkier rants, Rodriguez bemoans the affront of hip-hop music. Hip-hop is not, he argues, music. Dude, my Tia Lety could tell me that. Still, his wit sneaks through. “Only Bach,” he says, “is as relentless, as monotonous . . .” Busta Bach!
What does Bach have to do with being brown? I don’t know. It is the restless work of this book to make and break connections, to suggest and refute and re-suggest ideas at a furious pace. The kaleidoscope of the author’s vision contains the whole American canister of shards and baubles; the lens of his eye never accepts the patterns it sees. And the author tirelessly turns it all again, watches it fall and cascade into new patterns — red, yellow, black. Brown.
Bookstores, in his world, are the last bastions of segregation. Whereas old stores once allowed James Baldwin to reside on a shelf beside any other author, he is now often found on that shelf over by Gay Studies and right above the small shelf of Hispanic Studies. In African-American Studies. The brown shelves.
“I am the observer,” Rodriguez says. He laments: “September 11, 2001 — several medieval men in the guise of multicultural Americans and in the manner of American pop culture drove dreadnoughts through the sky. … These were men from a world of certainty … a world where men wage incessant war against … impurity. Puritans!” Brown is not about color, he argues, but about impurity. “I am dirty, all right,” he says:
“My brown is a reminder of conflict.
“And of reconciliation.”
As the book draws to its close, scripture begins to haunt the text. Impurity, that fecal stain in the introduction, takes on the hue of sacrament. And Rodriguez, as he meditates on love — yes, he’s thinking about holy love — seems at once brave and terribly sad, melancholy and alone in a swirl of white fog. He walks away from us, brown and unbowed, perhaps never to find that fabled reconciliation. Peace may be entirely out of the question. He goes against the wind, muttering a few beautiful lines of Eliot.
Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of “By the Lake of Sleeping Children: The Secret Life of the Mexican Border.” His newest book, “Six Kinds of Sky,” has just been released by Cinco Puntos Press. He teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Excerpts from Brown
Most bookstores have replaced disciplinary categories with racial or sexual identification. In either case I must be shelved Brown. The most important theme of my writing now is impurity. …
The future is brown, is my thesis; is as brown as the tarnished past. Brown may be as refreshing as green. We shall see. L.A., unreal city, is brown already, though it wasn’t the other day I was there — it was rain-rinsed and as bright as a dark age. But on many days, the air turns fuscous from the scent glands of planes and from Lexus musk. The pavements, the palisades — all that jungley stuff one sees in the distance — are as brown as an oxidized print of a movie — brown as old Roman gardens or pennies in a fountain, brown as gurgled root beer, tobacco, monkey fur, catarrh.
We are accustomed, too, to think of antiquity as brown, browning, darkening, as memory darkens, as the Dark Ages were dark. They weren’t, of course, they were highly painted and rain-rinsed; we just don’t remember clearly. …
Whereas there is brown at work in all the works of man. Time’s passage is brown. Decomposition. Maggots. Foxing — the bookman’s term — reddish brown; reynard. Manuscripts, however jewel-like, from dark ages, will darken. Venice will darken. Celluloid darkens, as if the lamp of the projector were insufficient sun. College blue books. Fugitive colors. My parents!