Saturday, March 12, 2016

Notes on White Girls by Hilton Als

Readers will remember my post on the 1992 essay collection Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, edited by the late Joe Wood, in which I reserved special praise for the entry by Hilton Als:
His essay is called "Philosopher or Dog?" and it begins in a manner that I initially found off-putting. But it finds a groove (or I found its groove) and by the end, I felt it was brilliant. It's a poetic meditation, if you will, on Malcolm X's mother, and the unfair uses he puts her to in his Autobiography. For example, he describes his mother, who was from Granada, as looking like a white woman, being more educated than his father, and even inviting occasional abuse for that reason. Als a) calls bullshit on all of that, but b) also tries to imagine her life, her politics. . . Among other things, it's a fascinating riff on the uses and distortions of autobiography and memoir.
Hilton Als was to that point unknown to me, though this may say more about my general tendency to ignore the New Yorker than anything else. In any case, I thought the essay was fascinating and knotty, and I was intrigued to learn that it was collected in Als' recent book of essays titled White Girls. What would it mean to collect an essay about Malcolm X, and his mother, in a book by that title? In the event, having now read the book, which includes essays ostensibly concerning Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor, Michael Jackson, Eminem (and his mother), Louise Brooks, and Richard Pryor, among others, I don't really have a definitive answer, except that Louise Little was the white girl of Malcolm X's imagination. It remains a provocative question.

It could be said that the book's general over-arching subjects are race and gender and the construction of identity and self. And of micro-collectives - as in the long, sprawling, frequently beautiful first essay, which largely concerns a friendship evidently of central importance to the author (or narrator? later essays, in which Als writes first-person essays from the standpoint of identities not his own, retrospectively raise the question), a "we" to which he belongs, or belonged, the ways in which we each are part of numerous such entities known as a "we" - understood to those belonging to it, often obscure to those outside it. The Flannery O'Connor essay was personally gratifying - given my own blog post on her and on politics and racism some years ago (a piece long by blog standards, short for an essay in a book) - not that that's necessarily a good reason to appreciate writing, but in any case, I read it thinking yes, this is what O'Connor is doing in her fiction, and this is how to read her doing it.

Those two essays notwithstanding, about halfway through I was feeling somewhat adrift and disappointed in the book, despite liking much of what I had read to that point - but none of it, except perhaps that opening essay, or most of it anyway, seemed to be as effective or urgent as the Malcolm X piece - which incidentally holds up very well on re-reading. But the second half picks up considerably. In particular, two pieces dealing with Richard Pryor (one of which is in the voice of an imaginary sister of Pryor's) are very good and among my favorites in the book.



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