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Est. April 5, 2002
May 31, 2018 - Issue 744

White Landscapes
"The Most Intolerable Anxiety"

"So many white Americans suffer from 'the most intolerable
anxiety' whenever black Americans speak about identity.
It’s this 'intolerable anxiety' that makes for the necessity
of producing white landscapes - visible when whites in the
United States declare their race more 'American' than any
other race, certainly more than any 'immigrant' population."

Then I closed my eyes. At some point while I was asleep it started to snow, and I am sure I was aware of it, in my sleep, that the weather changed and grew colder, and I knew I feared the winter, and I feared the snow if there was too much of it, and the fact that I had put myself in an impossible position, moving here. So then I dreamt fiercely about summer and it was still in my head when I woke up. (Out Stealing Horses: A Novel)

The landscapes appear hospitable. Peaceful. I look at her, the bookseller, and we are both nodding. I recall the description of a snow-covered landscape from the last writer I read. Introduced to me by this bookseller sometime ago now. But what could be hospitable or peaceful about those landscapes? Hawks are no less predatory over snow-covered land than those I see from my balcony as they encircle above the treetops in search of rodents and small defenseless animals. And human beings die in those lands too. And suffer.

During my stint teaching at various colleges in Philadelphia, nearly ten years ago, I agreed to read new writers. A change in landscape would be welcoming. I settled on Norway, and the writer, Per Petterson. For months, I lingered in the snow-covered land until I had read all that he had published by then. However lyrical the translation, I couldn’t imagine my presence in all that whiteness. Couldn’t imagine sitting beside the socialist Arvid Jansen or walking in the thick snow with Trond and his dog Lyra. Unlike the bookseller, I found I couldn’t keep my eyes shut for long.

I’ve long had an interest in the construction of white landscapes. There’s something to see there, something to recognize in that incestuous windstorm surrounding the house of Usher or in the way Faulkner recreates the innocence that consumes white as well as black in the immediate aftermath of the South’s defeat. Visiting these white landscapes, it’s not even conceivable that I could read, as my white compatriots readily do, to escape the land Danielle Steele creates. So far and distant from home. So it’s believed. Better, sometimes, to walk a bit among people horrified by the imagined terror of a murderous snowman!

By the time I arrive in Philadelphia and visit the cold climes, of Scandinavia, I had already witnessed the purging of work, written by the world’s majority populations of color, in Wisconsin alone. This was 2007 or 2008 and academia’s liberals were thinking about “Hope,” again. “Change,” again. Once and for all, it was time for white liberals to save America by ridding the nation of any reminders about its past.

In Wisconsin, I had already witnessed a comparative literature department shrink from a floor of offices to a door, with the label, Comparative Literature. And what remains of one of the first African American Studies department, founded back in the early 1970s by the late Nellie McKay, seems to settle down in the safety of invisibility.

At public libraries, administrators and librarians questioned the necessity of young people having to read about those “dirty parts” in a novel such as Beloved. Why the “dirty parts”? We’ve made progress!

By the time I stumble upon the bookstore and the bookseller in Philadelphia, Barack Obama’s hope and change is legitimizing the whitewashing of the nation’s past.


Back in the day, my Southern-born black grandparents spent their lives deconstructing the racially coded language used by southern and northern whites talk among themselves - in the open - about colored folks, niggers, Black people. And neither ever met Derrida. Years later, it was easier for me to understand what “reading between the lines” and “existing in the margins” meant. These phrases didn’t make me feel uncomfortable.

The term, going “a piece of the way,” as black literary critic Carole Boyce Davis explained some years back, when, for a second, anyone was reading black women, originates from old African and African-based cultures. At the end of a visit, the African hosts would offer “courtesies to visitors” by going “a piece of the way” with them. You’re not expected to walk the whole route—just a piece of the way. You’re not being forced, chained and kidnapped. It’s civilized: you decide what’s “a piece.”

Analogous, a positive carryover from the past. What threatens anyone unfamiliar with the custom? If anything, for Black Americans to cross the Atlantic by book, we had to endure, as Baldwin noted, the horror of a “bill of sale,” first. To see in this ancient custom something useful to a people thinking about ways to be in the world, to be among others, to be in a land far from home—and yet make it work so that we live as a people connected to humanity - that takes some bravery, traversing American history. So it’s not so daring a task to take a little feminism, a little Marxism, Deconstruction - a little of whatever could prove to be invaluable, uplifting, enlightening, or inspirational for the journey of both host and visitor. You would think! What could be recognized in this “theorizing,” coming naturally to my grandmother as “un-American”?

For a people once identified as the property of other Americans, a radical transition was in order. Loud and sometimes confusing, a generation of blacks began the process of tossed off America’s “Negro,” and, looking across the Atlantic, re-discovered Africa—Europe’s “heart of darkness.” It’s “mysterious” continent. “Barbaric.”

Nonetheless, black thinkers, activists, artists, writers, poets, critics, and historians listened to Malcolm and followed in Baldwin’s footprints do to the necessary work of re-writing narratives representing the experiences of black people - as people no less human than the immigrants from England, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Germany, or Sweden.

What’s living in the “margins” that can’t be maneuvered? Taking a little here and a little there. 

But we’ve gone a piece of the way, and how far have we really come?


There is only so much Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin we can study in high school before becoming drained of our blood. So we read Soul on Ice or The Fire Next Time or The Wretched of the Earth or The Black Panther Newspaper - subversive knowledge, “subjugated knowledge” (`a la Foucault) as we ourselves (as individuals and as a people) were subjugated because subjugated experiences we shared of being black people in America. We were not to find these books (or “news” tidbits) listed on the Pius Tenth Readers Guild book lists. What would parents or teachers think?

I bought my one and only dashiki. I grew my hair natural and pierced my ears with a needle and thread. There was nothing chic about this transition from someone’s idea of a Negro to a human being born primarily of African descendant. I listened to Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, and read all that was available to me on Apartheid in South Africa. I became familiar with the DuSable Museum. For a time, we thought the Pan-African flag, the green, yellow, red as our own much like the young people today, saluting each other in the way residents of “Wakanda” have done since the beginning of time…

There should have been a political component - that spoke to our experiences as black people living in America. And there was such a component in our past. Unlike Hollywood, we didn’t product the dead and harmless. Instead, black America was the unwavering and outspoken voice of righteous indignation, critical of an American cultural and political environment in which, black Americans were forced to walk through hostile terrain, particularly when calling for freedom and justice. Our voices, neither humble or soothing, refused to glorify the undeserving!

There should have been a political strategy that engaged in permanent struggle, envisioning a legacy to pass on, unfortunately, but pass on nonetheless. Because nothing, as Faulkner noted, is done once and it’s over. There are “traces,” Derrida once said. Always traces. What remains isn’t possible to erasure no matter how hard skeletons work to bury the truth.

Forget! Forget!

Four hundred years - and then some. Six million - and counting. And no accountability yet from the political leadership - whichever party receives the most votes at the polls.

There should have been a political movement for social justice, one as unwavering as that we once had before the white handkerchiefs went up in surrender. Before black America glided toward the easy route. Skipped, suddenly as if children, though the short cut—in the direction of the Democratic Party.


We should have had a vibrant, nonstop political struggle.

During his walk through the deep South, James Baldwin saw it: an image of “terror.” Not, he writes in the faces of the “official murderers,” no. He witnessed the “nature of the heathen”: his “Negro friends”--still wanting to be Negroes! “I was forced to recognize that, so long as your friend thinks of you as a Negro, you do not have a friend, neither does he—your friend. You have become accomplices.”

Settling comfortably with a nod to a perceived inevitable, the “political” became the “struggle” for positions for handmaidens in the electoral process. Questioning ruled obsolete, the slogan in the “cultural” parlance of the Eighties and Nineties became: Dump the black! Keep the Negro! Fixed in time, the Negro, often attired in corporate suits, or even Ghanaian kente, spoke in the cadence of master about “family values” and “getting ahead.”

It’s no coincidence that Baldwin’s conception of the Negro as “accomplice,” based on his observations materializes in the “absence” of black thought in academia. White feminists, with official credentials in Anglo-Saxon literature and “American Studies,” in leadership roles, on behalf of “post-racism” campaign, engage in quick studies of black, Latina, Muslim women literature. Selling black, Latina, and Muslim women culture as a product without substance, animates the ghostly landscape with the necessary phantoms while whole-hardheartedly declaring inclusiveness to an unsuspecting, often politically unenlightened, clientele, to use Dick Gregory’s words, forced to procure a means of making a living instead of seeking knowledge on how to live. A fresh infusion to an old story, white female feminists dress up as if the real deal—mistresses akin to masters.

What a masterful means of sustaining white supremacy! What a great marketing strategy is the non-bloody erasure of black resistance in academia - and subsequently, in the cultural as well as political arena as well.


I have known white landscapes all my life. I was born in America; became political conscious in America; and nowhere in America’s narratives of white landscape is there an account of the nation’s inherent racial diversity - except, ironically, in the statuses of Native American killers and slaveholders. I have spent hours in the “stacks,” at university libraries, reading the description of white landscapes - lush green in tone - populated by “gardeners,” at work in the fields, yet in close proximity to stately white-columned mansions.

It’s not difficult to recognize how easy and natural it is, in this era of corporate rule and anti-multicultural, anti-immigrant sentiment, to appropriate the voices of our anti-capitalist and anti-white supremacy thinkers to speak on behalf of white identity politics. Baldwin’s look forward to a vision of an America that had yet to be achieved, didn’t negate his refusal to forget America’s past - a past of cruelty and terrorism committed against blacks for which America has yet to be held accountable. And blacks refusing to forget is the real issue here. Baldwin understood this dilemma. Therefore, he didn’t expect black Americans to accept a more permanent arrangement of servitude within newly crafted narratives of white landscapes as a form of punishment for refusing to become accomplices in their own demise.


In a small Swiss village, residents referred to Baldwin as the Neger! Here, in this village, the word can’t hurt him neither can the children who follow behind him, shouting Neger! It’s an import. And he says, he begins to think about home…

In the narrative, where the “Negro” flourishes is, and has always been, the site of resistance.

America,” that is, Baldwin recognizes, is less a landscape and more a prevailing psyche: so many white Americans suffer from “the most intolerable anxiety” whenever black Americans speak about identity. It’s this “intolerable anxiety” that makes for the necessity of producing white landscapes - visible when whites in the United States declare their race more “American” than any other race, certainly more than any “immigrant” population.

This observation prompts Baldwin, in a later essay, to insist that there are no Americans. In a country we have yet to achieve, how can there be Americans? Those “arrogant” enough to call themselves “Americans,” insist on “the idea of white supremacy.” As a result, they “have made themselves notorious by the shrillness and the brutality with which they have insisted on this idea.”

This is American Identity! This is the identity Baldwin encounters in Switzerland. Such an identity isn’t one any sane individual or race or country should want to achieve. There’s no going “a piece of the way” with American Identity! To do so, we would only contribute to the tally of accomplices, engaged, as they are, 24/7, in the production of fear. It’s American Identity that’s in need of an overhaul! Perhaps an erasure of the cruelty and brutality of the idea of white supremacy, once and for all. An erasure of this “most intolerable anxiety,” Baldwin noted decades ago, towards difference.

The erasure of that necessity to lie and deceive generations of the young and unborn is our struggle. Only by acknowledging a past that isn’t even past, in all it’s unsaturated horrors, and by rejecting the rule of all forms of authoritarian rule be it religious, racial, patriarchal, class/caste, can a country worthy to be called America rise from the rumble. Maybe, then, the question of identity won’t be so froth with anxiety and fear. Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels.




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David A. Love, JD
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