Simone Weil’s Metaxu: Interrogating Truth

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Dorothy Tuck McFarland (1983) views Simone Weil as a “writer with profoundly holistic vision of man [sic] and his [sic] relationship to the world” (pp. 168-169). This vision is demonstrated in Weil’s use of Attention, Decreation, and, most specifically, Metaxu to integrate her words into a singular and consistent corpus of literature that we find today. As a hysteric, Weil demands all the knowledge that she possibly can and then is not satisfied and desires more knowledge. The hysteric’s discourse demands knowledge beyond what is given by the master narrative, by the hegemony of the time, and this is exactly what Weil does in her discussion of Metaxu.

I understand the word Metaxu to refer to three main cognitive actions which Weil employs in description of the term: 1) Weil uses action when she postulates that a wall or veil is both a barrier and a way through, 2) She further uses an insistence on looking for and holding together contradiction, 3) And Weil intends the view of the idea of a means versus an ends. This demonstrates the ways I see Weil’s ambiguous use of Metaxu and its multiple, complementary meanings. These themes run throughout Simone Weil’s prose. I note work from Gravity and Grace, as well as The Power of Words.

Weil (2002) does acknowledge a Platonic understanding of Metaxu as a “between” which she refers frequently to “the distance between the necessary and the good” (p. 105). However, her concepts explored in this article demonstrate that Weil is concerned not with middle ground between two contradictories, but the bridge that allows one the means to travel back-and­forth between these points. This use is somewhat different that the traditional use of Metaxu.

For Weil, Metaxu has many different connotations including suffering, contradiction, impossibility, and certain contradictions that connect us to our humanity.  What is of premium importance in understanding Weil’s use of Metaxu is its process or action. Weil takes her action use of Metaxu to accept challenges, contradictions and power struggles as they lead her further along the path of the hysteric’s search for more truth or knowledge.

I have found Weil to be a hysteric, especially from the perspective of the psychoanalytic characterization of the hysteric based on the theory of Jacques Lacan.  The hysteric, in this conception, is the person who cannot accept authorities’ definitions.  The hysteric seeks the fill lack; it should be understood that in Lacanian theory lack can never be filled. Therefore, though not accepting truth Weil continues to seek it out.

Weil was a political activist and thinker who also used theological notions in her writing. Weil does not make a distinction between political and spiritual realms in her idea of Metaxu. The message of Metaxu refers to the transcendent or a “higher plane.” Therefore, Weil’s methods of Metaxu also lead her to an understanding of a move, which is never fully complete, which conflates the spiritual and the political.

The following quote expresses Weil’s statement about her intentionality and missionality toward seeking more and more knowledge of inviolability of God, while demonstrating her ambiguous use of the term Metaxu: In Weil (2002):

What is it a sacrilege to destroy? Not that which is base, for that is of no importance. Not that which is high, for even should we want to, we cannot touch that. The Metaxu. The Metaxu form the region of good and evil. No human being should be deprived of his Metaxu, that is to say of those relative and mixed blessings (home, country, traditions, culture, etc.) which warm and nourish the soul and without which, short of sainthood, a human life is not possible. (p. 147)

This missionality is holistic in nature and she is speaking of that which cannot be put into language, which reaffirms Lacan’s acknowledgment that communication cannot truly take place. It is that dissonance of the Lacanian split subject and the dissonance of all experiences of difficulties, hardships and injustices which are approached by Weil through Metaxu.

Weil (2002) first cognitive action helps us to understand Metaxu with the metaphor of a barrier or a wall:

Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them, but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us with God; every separation is a link. (p. 145)

Weil (2002) also writes, “This world is the closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time it is the way through” (p. 145). This is a cognitive exercise of seeing obstacles as something more.  Necessity is a barrier and a bridge between us and the holy. Weil attempts to reach an understanding from the hysteric’s point of view, note here that this understanding can never be reached.

Weil uses the concept of “necessity” to apply this cognitive exercise on a grand scale, as demonstrated in the following quotes. Weil (2002) states that “God has committed all phenomena without exception to the mechanism of the world” (p. 104). The mechanism of the world rests on necessity and the obligation that the sun and all stars do shine and all matter does create gravity. These are necessary elements and fundamental to the continuous nature of the cosmos. Necessity is the subsistence of all things both finite and eternal, earth and heaven. Weil (2002) supposes that “There are necessity and laws in the realm of grace … Even hell has its laws (Goethe). So has heaven” (p. 92).

It is important to define what Weil means by “necessity.”  To Weil, necessity encompasses all the laws that the physical world we know are ruled by; these laws apply equally to all people. Weil repeatedly returns to the idea of necessity as a foundational concept in her philosophy and uses it in a variety of ways to resolve subjective angst.  In spite of her obsession with necessity, Weil is always in pursuit of more knowledge (as a hysteric).

From Weil’s point of view, the mechanisms of the physical and metaphysical world cause man great suffering; however these mechanisms also provide protection from being consumed by God’s full power and holiness. Again this is an illustration of how the barrier, or the wall, is also the way through, or the means of communication. Weil’s pessimistic views of necessity prove to be, according to McFarland, (1983) “no less threatening to the future of civilization now than they were in the 1930s” (p. 169).

McFarland brings forward necessity as the driving force for the whole cosmos, which is very fundamental to Weil’s work. Weil (2012) writes of it this way:

This universe where we live, of which we are just a particle, is that  distance placed by divine love between God and God. We are a point in that distance. Space, time and the mechanisms that govern matter are that distance. All that we call evil is only that mechanism. God made it so that His grace, when it penetrates to someone’s very center and illuminates their whole being, permits that person to walk on water without violating the laws of nature. But when someone turns away from God, they simply give themselves over to gravity. Then they believe they will and choose, but they are only a thing, a falling stone. (p. 39)

Without the protection of space, time, and matter humanity would evaporate as water in direct sunlight.  Per Weil (2002), “Necessity is God’s veil” (p. 104).  The veil is necessity which keeps humans from being scorched by God’s radiance; necessity perpetuates the universe in its increasing infinitude, necessity guarantees the ex-sistence of space, time, and matter (p. 32). For Weil (2002) “Necessity is the screen set between God and us so that we can be” (p. 33), indeed, that which prevents our evaporation.

Metaxu, demonstrated as seeing obstacles and as something more, is perpetuated by the gravity of laws in the universe which preserve life. As I have said, Necessity is a barrier and a bridge (Metaxu) between us and the holy. Weil (2002) theorizes that “The distance between necessity and good: this is a subject for endless contemplation” (p. 105). This is an example of the way in which Weil thinks with Metaxu.

The mechanisms of necessity display ultimate obedience to divine Wisdom; therefore, being subject to necessity can be our bridge to obedience to divine Wisdom as well. In terms of the veil, it is used in the following way: “In such cases suffering, emptiness are the mode of existence of the objects of our desire. We only have to draw aside the veil of unreality and we shall see that they are given to us in this way. When we see that, we still suffer, but we are happy” (Weil, 2002, p. 23).

Weil’s approach to the somatic aspect of life is explained well by Charity K. M. Hamilton (2013), who refers to “the body [as] that space which can connect us with God or separate us from God” (p. 93). The body is a site of Metaxu for Weil according to Hamilton. It serves as a theological bridge between a person and God. The physical world was strangely inviting to a woman with such an emotional and physical struggle with anorexia.

Out of Weil’s compassion, she sees a different reality than that of the Lacanian discourse of the master; again, as a hysteric, she seeks knowledge beyond what is known even to experts. Weil’s political thought focuses on justice, morality and recognition of the hard-working individual who was oppressed and exploited. Fred Rosen (1979) reminds readers about “Weil’s insight into the double deprivation of the workers which consisted not only of low wages but also of loss of dignity.” (p.306) As Weil (2002) proclaims:

The true earthly blessings are metaxu. We can respect those of others only insofar as we regard those we ourselves possess as metaxu. This implies that we are already making our way towards the point where it is possible to do without them. For example, if we are to respect foreign countries, we must make of our own country not an idol, but a stepping stone toward God. (p. 147)

Weil’s approach is spiritual, humanistic and compassionate, not highbrow and elitist. She found herself in the factory with the worker and single-handedly negotiated a philosophy honoring what she refers to as Metaxu, man’s [sic] connection with “earthly blessing.” Weil is focused on the person one at a time; her compassion led her to the conclusion that she does not have comprehensive solutions but rather individual approaches.  Each works out justice through attentive labor and practice. Weil’s sense of Metaxu as involving contradiction plays out in her view that what is transcendent is also lowly. Weil believed that the entire world is contradiction.

In Howe’s (2009) estimation, “Weil’s conception of roots is heavily influenced by the Greek idea of Metaxu: in this case the existence of intermediaries that form bridges between earth and heaven. Weil placed such importance on these aspects of human [sic] existence” that the result was that she was inclined to embrace earth and heaven. Weil believes all of the cosmos is contradiction, and this contradiction is what grounds us, connects us to the transcendent, or gives us roots.  The world is the social and physical realm in which there is “baseness,” “lowness” and a “property of evil,” (p. 77) in Weil’s writing it is apparently the social realm that creates a barrier “which keeps evil away” from some.

For Weil (2002), Metaxu is acceptance of contraries, e.g. “every man is the slave of necessity, but the conscious slave is far superior.” Weil (2002) conflates “necessity” and “submission” in “The only way to preserve our dignity when submission is forced upon us is to consider our chief as a thing. Every man [sic] is the slave of necessity, but the conscious slave is far superior” as well as stating Metaxu with the following: “if one day we are driven, under pain of cowardice, to go and break ourselves against their power, we must consider ourselves as vanquished by the nature of things and not by men [sic]” (p. 157- 158); here that Metaxu is applicable to “the nature of things” and “men [sic].” It again is seeing more when faced with a barrier, remembering that very barrier is our aid.

The second cognitive action Weil uses as part of her doing Metaxu is to retrieve a picture of the whole by looking at extremes. Weil as the hysteric (in the manner of the hysteric’s discourse) questions the master signifier. This is because the full truth can never be spoken; she considers truth as something to pursue, even though she can only get glimpses of it. The balancing of the challenges she faces include finding the complication with the use of dichotomies, or finding the contradiction in the way we typically think of opposites.

These typical notions have to be taken apart, which happens through suffering, so we can have a better understanding of the true relationship of these ideas. Weil seeks out the “right union” of opposites, which is not about a between, but about what is found on a “higher plane.” Dialectics for Weil are not seen as dichotomous, but rather as meeting and joining by way of a bridge for getting back and forth, and even in contradiction, often being in both places at the same time, which may appear as coalescence, but not a compromise.

This is the nature of Metaxu, to bring together contradictories in spite of their contrariness. Weil (2002) writes that “We must seek equilibrium on another plane” (p. 6). This plane might seem difficult to conceive of or even entertain cognitively, but Weil gives the following metaphor to assist in understanding “another plane” by stating:

If I am walking on the side of a mountain I can see first a lake, then, after a few steps, a forest.  I have to choose either the lake or the forest.  If I want to see both lake and forest at once, I have to climb higher. (p. 99)

Weil kept her own philosophical position and did not give way to the thoughts of the day, especially political ones. Fiori attests to the potential contradictions and inconsistency in Weil’s ideas which only positions Weil as truly a human [sic] and unpretentious political figure. Fiori (1989) writes, “de Kadt declared at the same time that he did not at all share Simone’s ideas, which were drawing ever closer to Gandhi’s” (p. 93) approach to protest. According to Fiori, “The nonviolent editors of the Dutch monthly, Liberation, published a translation of her articles in the form of a booklet. They had quickly discerned her detachment from every separatist scheme and from all factionalism” (p. 93).

Weil was not a joiner, according to her friend Simone Pétrement.  Towards the last part of her “political life” Weil differed in opinions from many, an example, for Bataille, “(the Russian) revolution is the triumph of the irrational,” for Weil, it is the triumph of the “rational.” What for him is a “catastrophe,” for Weil is a “methodical action for which we should strive in every way to mitigate the damage.” While for him the revolution is “liberation of the instincts, especially those considered currently to be pathological,” for Weil it means the need for, as in Fiori (1989) “a superior morality” (p. 96).

Weil seeks to find truth when the opposite is true, and seeks the balance which opposites bring into the foreground. Weil’s likelihood to contradict theories in order to bed within the confines of the discourse of the hysteric is, which is indicated by her symptoms.  Those would be the desire to fight on the front lines while refusing to eat or stay healthy.  These problems did not prevent her from voicing and conveying her political-self.

Weil had particular understanding of the political era she lived in and she presented a holistic and unique perspective on the nature of revolution; one could say that Weil was not interested in the same sort of revolution than that which Trotsky had in mind. Weil didn’t fit into a particular camp of thought on the matters of political import. Whereas Trotsky was interested in revolution within the whole of social order, Weil understood the needs of the individual worker as more important than a revolution that would just instate a new rule.

Blum and Seidler (1989) contend that in Weil’s view “revolutionary insurrection has nothing to do with genuine radical change … [she also thought such insurrections] … do not touch the real sources of oppression and dignity, which concern the structure of work and work relationship” (pp. 62-63). Weil interprets change as illusory to the masses and theorists, a contradiction in their thought to the extent that Weil can see through it into the psyche and have a further knowledge, again as the hysteric seeking what is beyond the truth of theorist.

Again Blum and Seidler remind us that “Weil suggests that genuine radical change can come about without a violent insurrection” (p. 63). Metaxu interestingly is used by Weil to find the abolition of all political parties. Weil (1977) explains that “revolution is the opium of the masses” (p. 120).  It is quite clear that Marxism “constitutes an improvement on the naive expressions of indignation which it replaced, one cannot say that it throws light on the mechanism of oppression” (p. 127).

Weil again states that even the French Revolution left people standing by, “helpless, watching a new oppression immediately being set up,” (p. 127) even after the beheading of the aristocrats. Metaxu is an active way of understanding the moment of actual change, not a conceptual or cognitive construction of an understanding of a historical process. Metaxu is the active process of dealing with contradictions to be worked through starting with action-based awareness (which Weil terms Attention) on the part of the people with which she worked side-by-side.

This can only happen through being-with the workers and educating them on the nature of the action-based awareness, “Attention,” which is state akin to mindfulness and concentration. Weil’s insistence on Metaxu as a cognitive action continues her search for truth, which leads her to the use of Attention. Weil agrees with Marx that oppression can only end if the structure of power has changed. However, Weil contends that what society sees as change is not genuine change, but further oppression.

When Weil uses Metaxu she works through oppositions and contradiction related to work life. This is a union of opposites not in the typical conceptual understanding, but rather through concrete happening. This is due to the political and public sectors being not as they seem. Weil dismantles both sides of the opposites and finds through active awareness that the right union of opposites happened on a higher plane. Weil (2002) writes to the worker, “The desire for vengeance is a desire for essential equilibrium. We must seek equilibrium on another plane” (p. 6).

There is another division in the thought of Weil which demonstrates the nature of dichotomies, as Weil understands it. Thus, she writes in Oppression and Liberty,

As Plato said, an infinite distance separates the good from necessity. They have nothing in common. They are totally other. Although we are forced to assign them a unity this unity is a mystery; it remains for us a secret. The genuine religious life is the contemplation of this unknown unity. The manufacture of a fictitious, mistaken equivalent of this unity, brought within the grasp of the human faculties, is an inadequacy as a philosophy through the description of Marxism as being a religion in the bottom of the inferior forms of the religious life. (p. 165)

Weil on the same page indicts Marxism as being a “fully fledged-religion,” in the “impurest sense of the word” (p. 165).

Weil continues to develop the notion that Marx is only a shade away from Plato’s spirituality in comparison to materialism (p. 165). Weil states elsewhere in the same work that “it is possible to say, without fear of exaggeration, that as a theory of the workers’ revolution Marxism is a nullity” (p. 175). Revolutionary Marxism is based on a reductive ideology, whereas Weil emphasized revolution is a hope that never fulfills its promise. Hence, the nature of the hysterics reality comes alive in the non-fulfilling nature of revolution.

In addition to seeing a barrier as a way through and seeking out contradiction, the third cognitive action that Weil frequently takes in this process of Metaxu is looking at the means versus the ends. The metaphor of the bridge illustrates the concept of means, nicely. The summarization of Weil’s use of the bridge comes in the following text from Gravity and Grace:

The bridges of the Greeks. We have inherited them but we do not know how to use them. We thought they were intended to have houses built upon them. We have erected skyscrapers on them to which we ceaselessly add stories. We no longer know that they are bridges, things made so that we may pass along them, and that by passing along them we go towards God. (p. 146)

Bridges are necessary in order to cross terrain that is impossible to cross otherwise; Weil was only interested in the means, the bridge itself, or the crossing over. Weil’s focus was not on the ends; for her that would be a trap, the end of knowing. Because of the hysteric’s need to continue toward truth, Weil felt nothing was as important as the bridge as the means not the ends.

Weil pictures the bridge as that which can readily be passed over to connect and investigate difference. Weil writes “Only he who loves God with a supernatural love can look upon means simply as means” (p.146). Weil’s concern that humans not use ends, but rather continue with means is for her as being of high importance. When ends come to be a prospect, as a solution to problems or as a way to complete a transaction or communication, this is the lowest of notions, it is the completion of desire.

Desire as means leading to desire as a means is the essence of beauty, because of the infinite nature of such; therefore, ends in themselves or means to an end are like blowing out candles in order to save wax, which is turning the world into darkness and bitterness (because of Weil’s anorexia, this concept of beauty makes sense).  Means is a significant philosophical and theological concept and can be applied to Weil’s representation of the human [sic] ends in the case of endeavors completed, finite, objectified or totalized. Weil saw great distress in a world of only ends.

The importance of means for means’ sake and means leading to further means emphasized synchronicity and spontaneity of the world. It was godly and noble to be of the understanding that means are fluid and related to the flux of life. Weil has numerous commentaries on power, money and resources; and on how they are indeed means that produce more means as they are applied correctly to life.

Weil speaks, the “miser’s treasure is the shadow of an imitation of what is good. It is doubly unreal. For, to start with, a means to an end (such as money) is, in itself, something other than a good. But diverted from its function as a means and set up as an end, it is still further from being a good” (p. 52). Good was for Weil a function or cognitive action entailing means only.

Weil maintains a moral sense which informs her political and religious scruples. She is strongly against what she considers harmful in the shaping of humans, individually and collectively. Weil states that “The Metaxu form the region of good and evil” (p. 147). For Weil, good and evil are equivalent when on the transcendent plane; they are separate otherwise in human [sic] existence.

In the discussion of good and evil, the work that Weil does covers the divide between good and evil which demonstrates a just and spiritual understanding of these realities. Weil reinvigorates those who would give her voice and delivers a sense of values that are above discriminatory morals and provides an approach toward a way of truer liberty. She had, again as Blum and Seidler (1989) have pointed out, escaped the terms of moral relativism that have become the common-sense assumptions within social theory and anthropology because they seemed to be the only alternative to nineteenth century rationalism, which tacitly judged other cultures in terms of the values and institutions of Western culture (p. 213).

Weil seeks to connect philosophy to concrete history. Weil’ s accumulation of writing as collected by Gustav Thibon, from Weil’s work which he entitled Gravity and Grace, amasses material that covers many topics; nonetheless, throughout Weil’s work there is the thread of material on Metaxu.

In various passages of her writings Weil comes close to a depiction of imagination which coincides with the Lacanian notion of the imaginary. For Weil as for Lacan, as Evans (1996) has it, “The imagination, filler up of the void, is essentially a liar.” (p. 16) A Lacanian understanding of the imagination sheds light on Weil’s understanding of the imaginary. As Evans (1996) puts it,

The imaginary is the realm of image and imagination, deception and lure. The principal illusions of the imaginary are those of wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality, and, above all, similarity. The imaginary is thus the order of surface appearances which are deceptive, observable phenomena which hide underlying structure; the effects are such phenomena. (p. 82)

Weil (2002) points to the aspect of evil which is the ”Monotony of evil: never anything new, everything about it is equivalent. Never anything real, everything about it is imaginary” (p. 69). All aspects of evil manifest in the same monotony participated in when on farm and in factory.  Weil honors work and the worker as doing the equivalent of divine work, when attended to in the proper way.

If the imaginary is filling the void, then it seems to follow that the cosmos is imaginary or illusion. This is why the image is so powerful in determining the outcome of one’s deliberation about subjectivity. This is where our values are implicated, as Weil (2002) says:  “Illusions about the things of this world (e.g. the image in the mirror, as I see it) do not concern their existence but their value” (51).  Again, Weil thinks positive outcomes of revolution are illusory, because the outcome is always the same; meaning a power structure is still formulated and a bureaucracy remains.  Within the filler of the void is where Weil’s words given capital letters come to play. For many would shed blood for this illusory state of affairs based on the perception of a greater good found in the revolutionary spirit, as defined by those words.

But according to Weil (1977) “when empty words are given capital letters, then, on the slightest pretext, men will begin shedding blood for them and piling up ruin in their name” (p. 270). For example, Greeks experienced frenzy for Troy; Christians retaliation for the sake of good over evil, Knights for chivalry, or Liberty for Americans. Means are the bridge that Weil envisions, while ends are the capital letters. Bracher (1993) suggests that “the more fully these master signifiers are exposed, the less capable they are of exercising their mesmerizing power” (p. 59). Weil exposes the master signifier in the moves which the powerful make in order for them to remain the hegemony.

Three cognitive actions are in place in Weil’s prose; they represent cause for a significant and meaningful understanding of revolution and work.  They help Weil deliver a message of hope, justice, and ethical politics.  These add-up to a move toward the illusion of the world found in contradiction.  This does not refer to paradox; Weil quite frankly understands opposites to stand side-by-side and not coalescing or forming some One notion.  Therefore, Weil can write about the abolition of all political parties, seeming disarray, and the revolution of work-practices.  The nature of Weil’s subversive thought indicates that “revolution is the opium of the masses” and that meaningful work is necessary for hope and justice.

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References

Blum, L.A., & Siedler, V.J. (1989). A truer liberty: Simone Weil and Marxism. New York, NY: Routledge.

Bracher, M (1993). Lacan, discourse, and social change: A psychoanalytic cultural criticism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Evans, D. (1996). An introductory dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis. New York, NY: Routledge.

Fiori, G. (1989). Simone Weil: An intellectual biography. (R. Berrigan, Trans.). St. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press

Howe C. (2009). Cultivating hope: Simone Weil, Metaxu, and a literature of the divine. In J. Hochheimer (Ed.). Hope in the 20thcentury (pp. 61-70). Oxfordshire, UK: Interdisciplinary·Press.

McFarland, D. T. (1983). Simone Weil. New York, NY: Ungar Publishing Company.

Rosen, F. (1979). Marxism, mysticism, and liberty: The influence of Simone Weil on Albert Camus. Political Theory, 7(3), 301-319.

Weil, S. (1977). The Simone Weil reader. G. A. Panichas (Ed.). Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell.

Weil, S. (2001). Oppression and liberty. New York, NY: Routledge.

Weil, S. (2002). Gravity and grace. New York, NY: Routledge.

Black Performance Theory: The Africanist Dancing Body and Transformations Within the Mainstream

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Black Performance Theory, a collection of essays edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez, establishes Black expressive culture as an area of academic inquiry and acknowledges the emergence and dynamism of Black performativity (Gonzalez and DeFrantz 1). In the introduction, DeFrantz and Gonzalez chronicle the emergence and transformation of Black Performance Theory from Zora Neale Hurston’s “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” to Robert Farris Thompson’s “Africanist aesthetics,” to contemporary efforts by scholars to provide a nuanced discussion of Black performance as historically and artistically significant (2-5). Undergirding Black Performance Theory are ideas and negotiations of Black/Blackness, Diaspora, Black sensibilities, performance, and theory — what they are, where they happen, how they happen, and their implications. A primary and crucial claim made by DeFrantz and Gonzalez is that Black sensibilities emerge in performance whether Black bodies are present or not, but underlying this point is that Black performance is always enabled by Black sensibilities, expressive practices, and people (1). While the collection spans a wide variety of performative practices and works, I focus this critical analysis on two essays that explicitly deal with Africanist dancing bodies and Black sensibilities within the mainstream dancescape. The first essay, written by Carl Paris, explores the question of imminent spiritual potentialities in the works of two postmodern Black male choreographers (Paris 99). The second essay, written by DeFrantz himself, “explores slippage from Africanist performance histories to global hip-hop corporealities” (223). I argue that both essays, though different in dance topic and critique, exemplify the transformational nature of the Africanist dancing body on, through, and by the mainstream. Furthermore, the concepts of connectivity and communal practice underlie both analyses, highlighting the interplay of Black sensibilities with mainstream and global spaces.

In his essay, “Reading ‘Spirit’ and the Dancing Body in the Choreography of Ronald K. Brown and Reggie Wilson,” Carl Paris, dancer, choreographer, and a scholar of Dance and Cultural Studies, engages a variety of Black dance, Black theology, and anthropological sources to read “imminent potentiality” through the works of Brown and Wilson (Paris 102). Citing key Black Dance scholars, like Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Robert Farris Thompson, DeFrantz, Sterling Stuckey, and Halifu Osumare, Paris begins his argument by discussing the role of spirit and the spiritual in the African Diaspora worldview and how it permeates all aspects of Black life (100). He then goes on to discuss the inherent spirituality in modern dance, as discussed by Gerald Myers (101). Combining the inherent spirituality of both Black life and modern dance, Paris then interprets the work of Brown and Wilson, demonstrating how they merge Africanist cultural elements and modern dance to produce choreography that links the negotiation of identities with Africanist cosmological and cultural elements that are grounded in community practice.

Noted Black Dance scholar, DeFrantz, in his essay, “Hip-Hop Habitus v. 2.0,” examines the transformation of hip-hop from a site of local social resistance to an aesthetic of pleasure and cool. For DeFrantz, this transformation is a result of hip-hop’s entrance into the mainstream and its subsequent commodification and consumption on a global scale. Habitus provides the conceptual framework for DeFrantz to argue that hip-hop, like other forms of Black social dance, exemplifies how Black expressive culture can emerge as an agent of social change, but once compressed into popular culture, loses its vitality as a resistant aesthetic practice as it begins to comply with the very system to which it creatively responded (237).  Thus, DeFrantz is in conversation with not only other Black Dance scholars as he reviews the literature on hip-hop, but also with sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose quotes on habitus from The Logic of Reason outline the sections of the essay.

My decision to group these two essays in the same critical analysis arises out of the way that they both provide examples of the transformational nature of Black Dance, particularly the negotiation of identities that happens through Black Dance. In the introduction, DeFrantz, and Gonzalez provide their definitions of “Black.” DeFrantz describes it as “the manifestation of Africanist aesthetics” (5) and “action engaged to enlarge capacity, confirm presence, to dare” (5), while Gonzalez describes it as “a response to histories” (6) and “a dialogic imagination. . .[that] responds to imaginations about black identities” (6). These descriptions of “Black” are found in the works of Brown and Wilson, as analyzed by Paris, and in DeFrantz’ discussion of hip-hop habitus. For example, in Paris’ essay, he notes the dualistic nature of Brown and Wilson’s choreography as they integrate Black aesthetics/culture and postmodern dance (102). In doing so, they engage how the sense of self interacts with the dominant culture and the histories that produced it, and at the same time, they use the spiritual element of the dance to transform the sense of self beyond the monolithic notions of the dominant culture.

DeFrantz’s “Hip-Hop Habitus v. 2.0” also confirms the negotiation of identities through Black Dance. In reference to the shifting purpose of hip-hop dance once it is taken out of its original, local contexts, DeFrantz writes, “Public dance competitions change the idiom and its possibilities. . .But in black communities pleasure must be aligned with aesthetic purpose and social function of one sort or another. Global stages overwhelm social function beyond their local identities. . .” (234-235). This suggests that where hip-hop in its local contexts serves as the manifestation of African aesthetics and the confirmation of presence, on the global stage, it becomes imaginations about identities, and therefore, exemplifies the dialogic nature of Black performance even when there is no conscious consideration of the performers’ identities or the histories out of which they emerge. This flexibility is a key component of Black performance which allows Black Dance to transform and be transformed by the mainstream.

In this negotiation of Black identities, there also lies a connectivity and communal element that both Paris and DeFrantz note as key components of the choreographic works and expressive idioms discussed. In the introduction, DeFrantz and Gonzalez describe Diaspora as a “process of community and unification”(11), so “[p]erformance becomes a dialogue between ourselves and others as we ‘make sense’ of diasporic journeys” (11). According to Paris, Wilson and Brown’s choreographies are underscored by the community/unification aspect. Paris notes Brown’s use of a circular formation to convey a sense of antiphonal interaction between individual and community (104), as well as how the unfolding of the choreography suggests the interplay between the spiritual individual and the well-being of the community (107). In addition, Paris maintains that in Wilson’s work, “the dancing body conveys spirit and meaning through community and cultural representation” (112), and Wilson draws in the unification aspect of Diaspora by bringing together three different companies from three different cultures with different backgrounds in dance and training. This serves to amplify “a unified sense of spiritual and community practice” (112).

In a different way, DeFrantz suggests how hip-hop dance and its global reach exemplifies the connectivity and community underlying Diaspora and its representations in Black performance. In his review of previous hip-hop scholarship, DeFrantz writes that for the second generation of hip-hop scholars, hip-hop “became a connectivity for youth across a geography, practiced locally” (226). As he goes on to discuss these “youth” and those engaged in hop-hop dance, he notes that not all of them are Black, or even consciously connected to the socio-historical contexts out of which the dance style emerged. However, something important to consider is the endurance of the imperative to innovate and what that suggests about identity formation within the social landscape. Like Brown’s choreography, hip-hop exemplifies the capacity to work as an individual within a group dynamic. It also demonstrates how that individuality simultaneously influences the group dynamic, much like how the spiritual individual interacts with the well-being of the community. Furthermore, while DeFrantz argues that the “aesthetic of the cool” and the driving force of pleasure behind hip-hop’s global popularity is problematic through the habitus framework, the aesthetic/pleasure aspect is the unifying force across various borders. This is significant because it corroborates DeFrantz and Gonzalez’s introductory claim that even when Black bodies are not present, Black performance is made possible by Black sensibilities, expressive practices, and people (1). Thus, there is an important interaction between Black sensibilities and mainstream spaces that demonstrates the capacity of Black Dance to reach beyond the individual and not only extend out into already-established communities, but to carve new spaces of community, as well.

Black Performance Theory is a critically important work because it introduces various frameworks by which Black expressive works can be interpreted, and in doing so, it establishes the dynamic nature of Black Performance, and by extension Black Dance. This makes it a key source for my exploration into Black women’s capacity to use Black Dance as a vehicle for restructuring boundaries. As they discuss in their introduction, the editors of this collection of essays are not wedded to any framework, but they do make it explicit that their goal is to demonstrate the reach of Black sensibilities and the possibilities of Black performance through Black sensibilities, expressive cultures, and people. One shortcoming of the two essays, due to my focus being on Black women, is that both essays are concerned with men and masculinist performances. However, they still provided valuable information on the role of Black Dance in negotiating identities and carving spaces that simultaneously work within the dominant culture and transform or get transformed by the mainstream. Furthermore, while Paris and DeFrantz focus on men and masculinist performances, Daphne A. Brooks provides an analysis of work by Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy to highlight negotiations of Black womanhood through sonic forms in her essay “Afro-sonic Feminist Praxis: Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy in High Fidelity.” She examines how sonic distortions found in “Four Women” and Funnyhouse of a Negro exemplify Black women’s discursive practice of speaking in racial and gendered voices, the (dis)identification these dual voices signify, and the histories out of which these voices emerge (Brooks). Like DeFrantz and Paris, Brook draws attention to the interplay between self-identification and hegemonic structures, and how performance is the method for negotiating these identities. Overall, Black Performance Theory is a crucial collection of work and adds much to Black Studies and Performance Studies scholarship, while also raising questions for further examination.

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Works Cited

Brooks, Daphne. “Afro-sonic Feminist Praxis: Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy in High Fidelity.” Black Performance Theory, edited by Anita Gonzalez and Thomas F. DeFrantz, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 204-222. https://eds-a-ebscohost-com.proxy.myunion.edu/eds/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzk5MTU4N19fQU41?sid=63d4d081-83fd-4ba0-8f12-409a51b86989@sessionmgr4010&vid=0&format=EB&rid=1.

DeFrantz, Thomas F. “Hip-Hop Habitus v. 2.0.” Black Performance Theory, edited by Anita Gonzalez and Thomas F. DeFrantz, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 223-242. https://eds-a-ebscohost-com.proxy.myunion.edu/eds/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzk5MTU4N19fQU41?sid=63d4d081-83fd-4ba0-8f12-409a51b86989@sessionmgr4010&vid=0&format=EB&rid=1.

Gonzalez, Anita, and Thomas F. DeFrantz, editors. “From ‘Negro Expression’ to ‘Black Performance’.” Black Performance Theory, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 1-15. https://eds-a-ebscohost-com.proxy.myunion.edu/eds/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzk5MTU4N19fQU41?sid=63d4d081-83fd-4ba0-8f12-409a51b86989@sessionmgr4010&vid=0&format=EB&rid=1.

Paris, Carl. “Reading ‘Spirit’ and the Dancing Body in the Choreography of Ronald K. Brown and Reggie Wilson.” Black Performance Theory, edited by Anita Gonzalez and Thomas F. DeFrantz, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 99-114. https://eds-a-ebscohost-com.proxy.myunion.edu/eds/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzk5MTU4N19fQU41?sid=63d4d081-83fd-4ba0-8f12-409a51b86989@sessionmgr4010&vid=0&format=EB&rid=1.

 

Fashion as Protest: Conversant Imagery in Jared Yazzie’s Protest Fashion Line

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Protest fashion presents an external visualization of an interior life that should lead to a meaningful dialogue that leads to tolerance and understanding if not affirmation and agreement.  Sarah Maisy noted that “the outfits we choose- or refuse- to wear becomes the front we offer the world…what we wear tells everyone who we are” (Maisy).   However, issues facing contemporary protest fashion seem to grow from the idea that protest creates commodification of dissent, exemplified by the proliferation of goods that bear various protest images and slogans of revolutionaries such as Che Guevara.  The production of these goods allows individuals to purchase designer labels signifying a transgressive expression that becomes, as Thomas Franks recognizes, a:

Capitalist orthodoxy, its hunger for transgression upon transgression now perfectly suited to an economic-cultural regime that runs on an ever-faster cycling of the new; its taste for self-fulfillment and its intolerance for the confines of tradition now permitting vast latitude in consuming practices and lifestyle experimentation. (34)

Promoting lifestyle experimentation capitalism constructs a corporate story for consumers designing them as reactionary suggesting protest fashion is a one-sided conversation.  Unfortunately, when this one-sided conversation becomes a trend, the corporation, through the individual, homogenize cultures.

Homogenization has been a constant issue for Native American communities, in particular where fashion provides a cultural context for protest.  Non-Native designers appropriating Native culture to produce protest fashion inevitably divorce the style from the issues further denigrating Native Americans.  Connie Wang, quoting Adrienne Keene, suggests that:

The public needs to shift their thinking and realize that knowing the story behind a piece- the community it comes from, the meaning behind it- is far cooler than buying a cheap knockoff that will disintegrate after a few washes.  Respect is letting Native peoples represent themselves in fashion, rather than having outsiders represent us. (Wang)

Knowing the story behind a fashion piece suggests that meaningful conversation must take place stylizing fashion protest as a dialogue.

One such contemporary pioneer of protest fashion as dialogue is Jared Yazzie (Dine).  Beginning his fashion line while attending the University of Arizona in 2009, Yazzie began designing cultural misrepresentation experienced by indigenous peoples, filled it with irony and wordplay, and “spits it back out onto a tee shirt” (Bais-Bille).  Yazzie’s fashion line bridges the chasm between Native American culture and mainstream American culture at the benefit of the indigenous designers (Bais-Bille).  Yazzie uses OxDx (overdose) to describe the state of modern society, “Sometimes we need to pull back and remember our culture, tradition, and those who have sacrificed for us” (Yazzie).

Considering Yazzie’s protest fashion as dialogic, this paper examines how a deaf and blind Western-controlled narrative has dictated Native American voice for the last five hundred years through considerations of counter-history.[1]  Secondly, Yazzie’s work raises a voice for Native women and the abuses that they have and continue to suffer at the hands of a racist judicial system.  Finally, Yazzie’s unique protest fashion provides a voice for the greater Native American community by opposing the fetishizing of Native cultures through mascots.  Overall, Yazzie’s fashion protest confronts historical discourse intentionally revealing the reality of the present by unveiling a counter-history in the past.  However, before considering Yazzie’s unique conversational protest, a brief discussion of underlying philosophies of Native American fashion appropriation must first be considered.

Appropriation through Photographic Projection

Perhaps one of the hardest projections to overcome is the romanticized view of Native Americans through photography.  Photography of Native Americans promoted a sentimentalist fallacy that romanticized the “noble savage” from a realist point of view.  Consider, for example, John Riis photography of the destitute in New York City at the end of the nineteenth century.  Riis framed the “realistic” vision of poverty that became a voyeuristic window for the middle class and the wealthy to safely view what was socially problematic without endangering themselves.  While Riis may have, eventually, moved some toward action, the majority of viewers seemed to have been emotionally moved to superficially consider the injustice of the situation without acting superficially.  Protest without action represents, as Christopher Voparil suggests, “the lack of connection between ideas and action” (104).

Just as Riis contributed an awareness of poverty leading people toward sentimentality rather than action, photography captured the idea of Native American identity.  However, photography negatively preserved and projected that identity.  One photographer that excelled at Native American photography at the turn of the twentieth century was Gertrude Käsebier who was known for her softly allegorical images of women and children (Carr 207).

The Red Man, Figure 1, taken in 1900, captures a contrary vision of Native Americans.  It captures a gentle warmness as there are no feathers, no war paint, and no jewelry of animal bones, merely a relaxed human wrapped in a blanket (Carr 208).  Käsebier imagery evokes healthy skin with rough folds of the blanket.  The Red Man inhabits a maternally gentle sphere.  What Käsebier, captures, however, can also be considered a separation of the Indian from humanity projecting an “innocent child” in need of maternal compassion (Carr 208).  Thus, the romanticizing of Native Americans takes the shape of a photograph contextualized by a vision of romantic simplicity characterizing “the noble savage.”

Another eminent photographer who sought to capture and preserve American Indians as traditionally as possible was the Seattle based photographer, Edward S. Curtis.  Curtis desired to help protect traditional aspects of Native American life that he believed was vanishing due to boarding schools and Indian removal policies (Makepeace).  N. Scott Momaday said of Curtis:

Taken as a whole, the work of Edward S. Curtis is a singular achievement.  Never before have we seen the Indians so close to the origins of their humanity…Curtis’ photographs comprehend indispensable images of every human being at every time and every place. (Curtis and Cardozo 21)

Many Native Americans were excited at the prospect of a Curtis revival as he captured aspects of their heritage in ways they believed were lost (Makepeace).

However, Curtis also reinforced the identity of the “noble savage” by staging romanticized and sentimentalized scenes that deflected the attention from the real plight of Native Americans and their loss of human rights.  Curtis removed all Western trappings, parasols, suspenders, wagons, and houses that many tribes had been forced to adopt to be considered civilized.  In Ogalala War Party, Figure 2, Curtiss photographed ten Ogalala men wearing formal feathered headdresses and riding down-hill on horseback with the caption, “a group of Sioux warriors as they appeared in the days of inter-tribal warfare, carefully making their way down a hillside in the vicinity of the enemy’s camp.”

While there is no denying Curtis’ talent, and  that he had a deep respect for those he photographed, the portrayal of the war party is wholly constructed.  Head-dresses may have been worn into battle, but usually they were reserved for ceremonial purposes.  Whether head-dresses were worn or not, the men would not be, “carefully making their way to the enemy camp” in broad daylight where they would be easily seen and, most likely, intercepted before they made it down the hill.  The photograph projects an imagined identity.

Curtis, despite his benevolent designs to capture authentic Indians, projects a modernist construction of cultural dominance.  In “Edward Curtis:  Pictorialist and Ethnographic Adventurist,” Gerald Vizenor suggests that:

The modernist constructions of culture, with natives outside of rational, cosmopolitan consciousness, are realities by separation, a sense of native absence over presence in history.  The absence of natives was represented by images of traditions, simulations of the other in the past; the presence of natives was tragic, the notions of savagism and the motive images of a vanishing race.  The modernist images of native absence and presence, by creative or representational faculties, are the rational binary structures of other, an aesthetic, ideological disanalogy. (180-181)

Modernistic conceptions of “Indian” tended toward romantic images projecting what Vizenor suggests in Crossbloods, “We were caught in camera time, extinct in photographs, and now in search of our past and common memories we walk right back into these photographs” (90).  For Vizenor, camera time meant walking back into a word, “Indian,” that was a simulation of constructed and projected identity that imposed, “the simulation of the indian that is the absence of the native” (Fugitive Poses 152).  These images and an attempt to remember and define an end, “imperialist nostalgia [that] uses a pose of ‘innocent yearning’ to both capture people’s imaginations and to conceal its complicity with the often brutal domination” (Rosaldo 70).

Using photography to capture the authentic Native American is to hunt for a “true Indian.”  Louis Owens suggests that any concept of a “true Indian” is an artificial construct and Euro-American invention: The Indian in today’s world consciousness is a product of literature, history, art, and a product that, as an invention, often bears little resemblance to actual, living Native American people. (4)

Photography suggests definition, capture, and possession through photographic simulation projected upon the Native American community.

Holding the same philosophy as photography fashion appropriates Native Americans through an “honor” and “respect” justification of cultural preservation.  Adrienne Keene suggests in her blog “Native Appropriations:”

Most often people who engage in cultural appropriation use the ‘respect’ and ‘honor’ argument to justify their actions- ‘But I think Native culture is so beautiful!’ or ‘I’m honoring Native Americans!’ To me, there is no respect in taking designs or cultural markers from community, divorcing them from their meaning and context, and selling them for monetary gain.  (par. 10)

Further, Native American fashion becomes appropriated by those who seek to “play” Indian without all the negative Western stereotypes attached to the term (Delroia ).  Karen Kramer, defining appropriation in fashion in Native Fashion Now, describes how these designers:

Appropriate Indian style for their own purposes…often [using] it to assert a kind of ‘true’ Americanness, or to stand for reductionist concepts like ‘freedom’ or ‘authenticity.’ Their garments may be handsomely executed; they may raise the profile or prestige of Native Aesthetics.  But when symbols of Native culture are deployed by people who don’t understand their meaning, it’s like a game of ‘telephone,’ where the message comes garbled.  After all, the ‘America’ these designs now represent is the same one that has oppressed indigenous people for so long. (19)

Through fashion as a “telephone game,” Native American culture becomes misunderstood, absented, and replaced with a simulation of what Indian fashion is imagined to be separated from any cultural significance while consumers misapprehend what their “costume” means.  Where there is no discernable context regarding the clothing, there can be no respect, and if there is no respect, there can be no appropriate action leaving current trends of Native American fashion appropriation locked in a sentimentalist fallacy.  Autonomously “feeling” that wearing misunderstood designs supports Native American communities reveals parasitic lifestyle experimentation.

However, there are ways that non-Natives can respect Native tradition while still supporting Native causes through fashion protest.  Again, Adrienne Keene suggests:

The way to truly respect Native communities in the fashion world is to support and buy directly from Native designers- these designers know the boundaries of their own cultures, know what elements are appropriate to incorporate in their work and sell to non-Natives, are building generations of culture and design, and very importantly, the sales are benefiting members of the community the designs come from, not large corporation or non-Native designers. (par. 8)

Generally, despite Native designs representing a particular community, it would seem that Native American designers produce artifacts that can be appropriately worn by anybody.  On the other hand, Native American fashion, even though it may find marketability towards general audiences, still requires a balanced education to intelligently speak about the issues that the clothing presents or there is the risk of falling into a protest based on sentimentalism and “lifestyle experimentation” (Franks 34).  In short, we are asked to provide an answer when confronted about our fashion that transcends individualism making the person wearing the clothing a viable conversationalist able to address deeper issues honestly.  Jared Yazzie’s fashion provides just such an example combining the Western historical narrative with a rich Native American counter-history.

Giving Native Voices to Honest Views of History

Seeking to open transparent and honest conversation, Yazzie subverts “bastardized symbols of Native culture,” by founding a tradition of deconstructing clothing, while also personalizing, the untold side of American history (Blais-Billie).  Yazzie’s fashion creativity seems to be influenced by his mother and how she made mundane government issued school clothing unique:

There’s government-issued tribal clothing that our parents used to get as Navajo kids on the first day of school.  My mom would fashion it into different stuff- it was super unique.  We weren’t the richest people, but she would make it a little different so everybody would think she bought all her clothes. (Wang)

Small alterations, adornment, and illumination can take inconsequential clothing and transmute them into a fashion statement that reflects community and social concerns.  In many ways, clothing becomes a ceremony exemplifying both the individual and community in which they live.

Yazzie’s brand, OxDx, carries a mission statement that seeks, “To preserve culture by passing on stories through art, fashion, and creative content.  To be socially conscious, constantly connected to our community, and ambitious as hell” (Yazzie).  Here, clothing becomes more than a fashion accessory.  Fashion connects to a social conscience raising awareness and participation in communities allowing fashion to tell stories in the way we dress, what adorns our clothing, and how we are constructing ourselves creatively by wearing that clothing.  Yazzie gives a voice to the voiceless by drawing attention to the messages that illuminate his t-shirt designs.[2]

Figure 3 presents Yazzie’s most popular design, and it is also the shirt that formally launched him into the world of fashion.  Baring the message “Native Americans Discovered Columbus,” the shirt itself is quite understated, and that seems to be part of Yazzie’s goal making it an everyday protest through ordinary fashion.  Even though “OxDx is about resistance, anti-conformity, and a departure from the toxic traps of society” the statement itself is visually arresting drawing the eye to the text imprinted on the t-shirt (Blaise-Billie).  Rather than an aggressive protest action, the shirt takes a historical “fact,” Columbus coming to the New World, and turns it around.  Discovery becomes double-sided rather than historically one-sided.  The simplicity of the statement allows the design to be considered and questioned turning the realization of the shirt into a teaching moment reversing the Western historical narrative to accuse Columbus of genocide in the New World openly.

Since Yazzie’s design promotes conversation, an honest and balanced view of Columbus’ genocide must be explored as it is not accurately taught in Western education.  In this case, Columbus’ own words condemn his actions as he recorded in his journal, “They [Native Americans] would make fine servants…with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want” (Zinn).  Slavery of the indigenous population become necessary to cater to Columbus’ greed.  His obsessive mantra became, “Where is the gold?” (Zinn).

So contagious was Western greed that in 1508, historian and social reformer Bartolome de las Casas reported that Spaniards, “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades” (60).  Native Americans were enslaved and separated from their families.  Violent and dehumanizing, the Native American population began to die from torture, starvation, exhaustion, and depression (las Casas 66).  Estimations of the death toll between 1494 and 1508 declared over three million Native Americans were killed in Columbus’ search for gold (Zinn).

Columbus’ violence against Native Americans eventually became the hallmark of the American Empire.  Yazzie’s work embodies both sides of this historical event.  Factually, Columbus came to the Americas.  However, when Columbus came to the New World, the indigenous population did discover him.  However, they also unmasked the West and a crueler way of life void of hospitality, humanity, and compassion that Native Americans had initially extended to these visitors.  They discovered that they were the slaves of an imagined empire that violently absented their voices through conquest.  As long as the person wearing the shirt is willing to engage honestly in this incredibly difficult conversation about this imbalance of historical information, then, perhaps, they can wear the shirt appropriately.

Giving Voice to Native American Women

A second important goal in Yazzie’s fashion provides a voice to indigenous women.  Stemming from biological determinism, as Edward Said suggests in Culture and Imperialism, scientific colonizing tactics are first made popular at home, and, so, to understand how Native women have been silenced, it becomes crucial to examine how the “civilized” world used a separate spheres dichotomy to divide their world while forcing this Enlightenment on the New World.

Separate spheres ideology rested on scientific definitions based on biological determinations of men and women.  Barbara Webster notes in “The Cult of True Womanhood,” that women were interpreted, phrenologically as inferior since a “woman is a constantly growing child, and, in the brain, as in so many other parts of her body, she conforms to her childish type” (4).  According to Kathryn Hughes article “Gender Roles in the 19th Century,” women were biologically determined to be physically, intellectually, emotionally, sexually, and constitutionally inferior to men, yet remained morally superior due to their mental and spiritual simplicity.  Because of this moral superiority, women segued men into a state of relaxation and moral balance when they came home as men could become tainted by the immorality of the public sphere.  American print culture promoted a reduction of women’s rights to piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity, as portrayed in Godey’s Ladies Book:

The right to love, whom others scorn,

The right to comfort and to mourn,

The right to shed new joy on earth,

The right to feel the soul’s high worth,

Such woman’s rights a God will bless

And crown their champions with success. (Hughes)

The childishness of the poem captures women in a sphere of domesticity that corresponds closely with ideals of women as only capable of being domestically familial, moral, and spiritual caregivers.

Eventually, these two spheres approach became a colonial tactic that assimilated “savage” cultures by seeking to restructure Indigenous values with the woman as the “light of the home” (Welter 152).  Sharon Harrow notes in Adventures of Domesticity that, “Domestic discourse was deployed as a colonizing tactic…cultures were called civilized or savage based on their domestic practices” (9).  Essentially, if the domestic environment in America did not mirror the “civilized” notion of domesticity, then it was savage.  Andrea Smith suggests that colonialism through missionary societies used the tactic to civilize North America. However, it led to widespread sexual abuse of ethnic women, prostitutes, and destitute women as they became equated with “dirty bodies” that were considered sexually violable (Smith 73).  Because the public sphere was not concerned with morality, the violation of a “dirty” body was not considered rape (Smith 73).

Within these conceptions, Native American women were considered “dirty” women perceived as childish sex slaves and work drudges in need of rescue (Barman 237-266).  On the other hand, Indian women were considered sexual to the point of unbridled appetites that demanded discipline and containment (Jacobs 118-199).  In many cases, every act of a Native American woman was perceived as an overtly sexual act due to the perception that they were wild, out of control, and full of debauchery (Barman 264).  Nowhere was this consideration of the sexual more apparent than in the nineteenth century “Prairie Pornography” of Will Soule who photographed Native women as half-naked, ignoble savages, whose bodies were twisted into erotic positions that left scientific discourse and entered into the pornographic (Ringlero 191-192).  Tragically, many Native women are still considered “dirty bodies” even today.

The consequences of colonial policies turning Native women into “dirty bodies” have continued to perpetuate this myth of Native women as nothing has reversed the narrative.[3]  According to the Indian Law Resource Center, four in every five American Indian and Alaskan Native women experience violence, and one in every two have experienced sexual violence (indianlaw.org).  More than half of all Native American women have been sexually assaulted, and over one third have been raped during their lifetime putting Native American women at nearly 2.5 times greater risk than white women (Bleir and Zolediowski).  Part of the issue stems from the fact that until recently, United States law had stripped Indian nations of all authority to prosecute non-Indians on sovereign land (indianlaw.org).  Sexual violations by non-Natives were reported at 96%, and the cases, even now, tend to go uninvestigated as the U.S. Attorney Offices have declined to prosecute two-thirds of the reported cases (indianlaw.org; Bleir and Zolediowski).

Sexual assault against Native women is not the only disconcerting statistic.  The Center for Public Integrity reported that, as of 2016, there were 5,712 cases of missing Native American women reported to the National Crime Information Center (Bleir and Zolediowski).  Annita Lucchesi, from the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, collected a database of 2,600 cases of missing and murdered Native women in Alberta (Bleir and Zoledowski).  The numbers here become more startling considering that Native American tribal nations did not gain access to FBI databases until 2015 rendering all these numbers an undercount (voanews.com).  At the end of 2017, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database had only 633 open missing-persons cases involving Native women (voanews.com).  Sarah Deer from the University of Kansas has suggested that violence and the rate of missing Native women are due to a broken legal system that is not providing justice on behalf of Native women (Deer).

Considering the human status of Native American women, Yazzie’s design, Figure 4, provides a fuller picture of injustices against women protesting the current legal culture with the simple design of a woman wearing traditional Native American clothing sitting on a stack of books while typing on a laptop contemplatively, and probably unconsciously, embodying two cultures.  The words, “The Future is Indigenous” illuminate the young woman.  The shirt suggests that it is time to consider the intelligent humanness of Native women while also building a healthy respect for their culture and traditions, which include respect and honor of woman as an essential part of living in a stable society.  As human beings, women are not just domestic slaves nor are they sexually deviant people. Instead, Yazzie’s shirt proclaims the self-determination of Native women as they seek to live educated, vibrant, and beautiful lives embodying both their traditional heritage while also pursuing higher education.

Giving Voice to the Tribal Nations

Finally, Yazzie’s work magnifies the collective voice of Native Americans as a Nation by standing against the use of American Indians as mascots for sports teams.  Historically, using American Indians as mascots would not have been considered insensitive since Native Americans were not scientifically considered human.  Again, biological determinism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries separated what was considered civilized and savage.  Students learned the ethnographic/biological species of human division as having three primary races and three secondary races: white, which included European, North Africa, through India; yellow, China, Japan, and the Middle East; and, Black, Africa, West Indies, Central America, and South America (Warren 17; Merrill 16-17; Guyot 9; Atwerp 16; Colton 16).  As primary races, they were characterized by their ability to build civilizations with recognizable social hierarchies. Caucasian races were considered superior able:

To actively engage in agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, and other pursuits. They make laws for the protection of life and property, possess an (established) literature, establish schools, and devote much time to intellectual improvement.  (Atwerp 16; Houston 128; Guyot 9)

Not only did Caucasians establish civilized order, but thinkers also considered the white races as the most intelligent, scientific, and moral having the only true religion, Christianity (Merrill 17-18; Hurst 38-41).

Native Americans were a secondary race identified as the “Red race,” a human subspecies defined as:

Savages (Indians) are the lowest and most degraded class.  They have no political divisions or towns, few and rude occupations, cruel or weak government, degrading religion, and no education.  Very few savages cultivate the soil.  The greater part subsists on roots and wild fruit, or by hunting and fishing.  Some tribes are ignorant of the use of fire, and eat their food raw.  The American Indians, some Negro tribes in Africa, and all the native tribes of Australia are savages. (Warren 17).

Within this narrow consideration, Native Americans were no more than simple children, at best, or ferocious animals, at worst.  From these definitions, it should not be shocking that Native Americans would become mascots that are projections of predatory animals or pejorative caricatures that have been projected onto Native Americans.

In 1999 the Society of Indian Psychologists, standing against the use of Native Americans as mascots, argued:

Stereotypical and historically inaccurate images of Indians in general interfere with learning about them by creating, supporting and maintaining oversimplified and inaccurate views of indigenous peoples and their cultures.  When stereotypical representations are taken as factual information, they contribute to the development of cultural biases and prejudices, (clearly a contradiction to the educational mission of the University).  In the same vein, we believe that continuation of the use as Indians as symbols and mascots is incongruous with the philosophy espoused by many Americans as promoting inclusivity and diversity. (Gray et al.)

Nowhere does pejorative representation become more apparent than in sports.  Currently, the number of professional sports teams using Native Americans as mascots has been reduced to five: one baseball team, the Atlanta Braves; two football teams, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Washington Redskins; and two hockey teams, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Edmonton Eskimos.[4]

Linguistically, a mascot is, “a person or thing, animate or inanimate, that acts as a charm or talisman, whose presence is designed, or believed, to bring good luck or good fortune to the possessor” (“Mascot” 197-198).  “Mascot” can be traced to Medieval Latin, Musca, meaning mask, specter, or nightmare, explaining why a particular mascot may be chosen to represent a sports team (Sciolist).  Linguistically, it is possible that the word developed from the Latin to the Old Provencal word masca, witch, to the Provencal word mascot, sorcerer’s charm or fetish, that aided in casting an enchantment (“Mascot” 197; Sciolist).  Sports franchises inappropriately project pejorative concepts of identity by fetishizing Native Americans.

Yazzie’s fashion recognizes the mascot from Cleveland Indians who had one of the most recognizable mascots in baseball. Figure 5 mashes the Indians mascot “Chief Wahoo” with the Misfit skull. Yazzie draws inspiration from the lyrics of “Skull:”

The corpses all hang headless and limp
Bodies with no surprises
And the blood drains down like devil’s rain
We’ll bathe tonight

(Chorus):

I want your skulls
I need your skulls
I want your skulls
I need your skulls

Demon I am and face I peel
To see your skin turned inside out, ’cause
Gotta have you on my wall
Gotta have you on my wall, ’cause

(Chorus)

(Misfits, “Skull”)

The mashup fits well with the idea that “Chief Wahoo” is a fetish hung on the wall of a genocidal conquistador that feels violently compelled to “hack the heads” off the colonized. The song and the symbol become reminiscent of the Indian Wars where scalps, and other body parts, were taken and sold for a profit.  Chief Wahoo represents a trophy, bodiless, his smiling head taxidermied and displayed representing a violent testament to American empire.

Conclusion

         While much more could be said for Yazzie’s fashion, he does prove that protest can be generally marketed to a broader audience.  However, protest does not come without context.  Finding context, doing the research, having conversations, and understanding why and how protest should happen is necessary to pursue meaningful protest that leads to change.  Yazzie’s work becomes powerful as his fashion allows for positive dialogue “that can bring about change, for what is said can come into actuality” (Peat, 225).  Conversations centered on history/counter history remain painfully contentious, yet to begin healing hearts must be examined through meaningful dialogue.  Yazzie’s fashion line pursues healing that can only happen through constructive and honest conversation.  His fashion line represents a human story that transcends lifestyle experimentation setting protest toward lasting change.

 

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[1] “Counter-history” draws on Foucault’s conception of “subjugated knowledges” that have been buried by formal systemization, and that have been disqualified as “inferior ways of knowing” due to their lack of civilized scientific foundations (7-8).

[2] Yazzie’s cprotest fashion has been featured in the Native Fashion Now exhibit which toured the nation in 2017, and he also received a commission from the Smithsonian in the same year during the exhibition (White).

[3] “Dirty bodies” concepts have also been termed the “Pocahontas Perplex,” Rayana Green (1975), a myth that continues to endure due to the Disney animated movie, and the “Celluloid Maiden,” explored by M. Elise Marubbio’s Killing the Indian Maiden:  Images of Native American Women in Film (2006), who sacrifices herself for a white man.  In both cases the Native women may not be directly “dirty,” but they are sexualized as exotic Princesses who is purely sexual and sexualized.

[4] The Cleveland Indians, while not changing their name, have agreed to drop the Chief Wahoo logo beginning in the 2019 season (“Cleveland Indians”).