SEPTEMBER 11, 2019
WHITE FLIGHTS IS a faultlessly argued collection of essays about how whiteness dominates the American literary imagination. That sentence reduces the project and judgment of the book to a mote of itself, but it may be all you need to know. If you are white and reading this review, and you are already interested in how racial issues intersect with contemporary literature, then buy this book, underline passages in it, assign it to your classes, use it as part of the continuing process of decolonizing your mind. But it’s also an ideal book, if a difficult pill, for those who do not believe decolonization is necessary.
First things first: Jess Row is a white man writing a book about whiteness, and he sees and understands readers of color who’ll tap the eye-roll emoji in response. It always matters to question what narratives get centered in the discourse, whether aiming the side-eye at wealthy people offering advice about finances, straight men wrestling with sex, or white Southerners exploring the legacy of the Civil War. These are not new or meaningful perspectives for poor, or queer, or Black readers. For Row to write about whiteness as a white person seems at the outset as if he’s taking up yet more space that could be given to a person of color — as if he’s re-centering whiteness in the discourse rather than allowing room for more diverse views.
But Row is writing from and to whiteness, cajoling white readers and writers to understand whiteness as subjective. Not universal, or invisible, but loaded with meaning and harmful assumptions. He writes: “To produce art — even explicitly antiracist art — under conditions that reward white subjectivity, center it, and render it harmless and neutral, is, arguably, a way of collaborating with and sustaining those conditions.” He has produced, in this book, antiracist art that centers white perspectives, but it does not reward them — he completely disavows the purported neutrality and harmlessness of whiteness. Writers and thinkers of color have tried again and again to make similar messages heard, but as they know, it’s difficult to make white people listen. Row is positioned for allyship by virtue of his race and his facility with critical language. He uses those privileges to send an important message.
White Flights patiently addresses the white intelligentsia inclined to grumble about VIDA statistics and diversity quotas, speaking to them in their language — literary theory — to demonstrate a fundamental problem at work in American letters. In seven dense essays, each of which builds to its purpose gradually, with dizzying complexity, Row proposes a handful of ideas to explain (and overturn) the willful blindness of American literary writers to race. One is the “white autonomy of the imagination,”
essentially a Kantian principle, derived from the Critique of Judgment, that assumes only certain people are capable of truly universal, disinterested aesthetic or artistic perception. […] What the construction of the white autonomy of the imagination misses is that autonomy, which often feels like vacancy, is a state of oppression.
This vacancy/oppression appears in, really, more books by white writers than Row can cover in a single volume. He chooses examples carefully: Don DeLillo, Raymond Carver, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Franzen. He intends not to challenge or denounce particular writers, but to illustrate the discourse-level pattern of white writers’ autonomy of imagination across the last century. “When [Annie] Dillard says ‘Like any child,’ she’s generalizing, broadening the circle, of her own experience, her subjectivity.” Row connects this generalizing to a dishonest game of deracination practiced by many white writers, one which “assumes that in certain states of being […] a person’s racial identity falls away […] [when] it’s simply not possible for that to happen.” He writes with great specificity and fervor about how writing teachers at the MFA level perpetuate this dishonesty to generation after generation of literary writers. “As if what matters is ‘craft,’ as if a sentence can ever be fully severed from the person and context that produced it.”
These incisive close readings of specific writers, one by one, brick by brick, set down the foundation of Row’s argument. But the other wing of the book is a series of metaphors he uses to connect movements in other disciplines with the closed loop of whiteness in American literature. The title, White Flights, refers most obviously to the physical migration of upwardly mobile white families out of cities and into suburbs. Row intertwines this phenomenon with white writers’ omission of race as an element in writing fiction, an element that should be inherently present in the melting-pot American imagination. “[F]or white people living in low-density suburbs or exurbs, which is to say most white Americans, to think about race is a choice, and not a very serious or meaningful one,” Row argues, in a scathing reading of a troubling, tone-deaf essay by Richard Ford. The aesthetic of such fiction as Ford’s is “an aesthetic ideology of white American life in the post-Reagan era, the era of voluntary, spatially expansive, emotive, intellectual, financial, educational self-segregation.”
As whites move away from dense urban zones, and into housing plotted by their great-grandfathers to exclude those who don’t look like them, they lose the ability to see whiteness as a subjective experience, rather than a default setting. For writers, this meta/physical move segregates the imagination, and endangers it.
Another elastic metaphor appears in “What Is the Point of This Way of Dying? A White Blues.” The essay gathers up Harold and Maude, emo music (the first, screamy wave, not the shoegazing kind), Wes Anderson, and writers like Lorrie Moore and Young Jean Lee to develop a notion of what a white blues would sound like. This reviewer was unconvinced by the metaphor, because the history of the blues is a history of co-opting Black pain and talent and packaging it for commercial uses. Repurposing the blues for white people again, even abstractly, even in Row’s sensitive hands, made me queasy. But the metaphor failing for one reader does not negate the many fascinating threads of the essay, one of which is David Foster Wallace, also guilty of making whiteness objective:
[I]t’s easy to see how works by writers of color, or women, fall into a category called concerns-that-are-reflexively-dealt-with-by-other-means. In other words: race, and racism, as social phenomena, line the periphery of his consciousness but aren’t integral to his art. […] Imaginative autonomy, the default perspective of white writing […] was to Wallace an absolute value.
Row’s insight reflects both the forces that made Wallace and the forces he perpetuated. It does not damn him, but it adds another little tally mark in the impossible ledger of Wallace’s legacy. For Row, he’s part of a pattern, not a singular offender.
The final essay, a little starker and less scholarly than the others, brings up “necropolitics,” an idea of Achille Mbembe’s that “politics is the ‘work of death.’” Row posits that Mad Max: Fury Road may be necropolitics in “a pure, unadulterated form, not as a theory but as a stimulant,” which explains the idea neatly. He extends necropolitics from political theory to the cultural imagination, writing about Platoon and the action classics of the 1980s. And Cormac McCarthy, who appears repeatedly in White Flights, surfaces again as a practitioner of necropolitics. As Row narrates, A. O. Scott compared Blood Meridian with Beloved in 2006 after a Best American Novel poll ranked them #2 and #1, respectively. Row points out something Scott failed to see: “Beloved is narrated from the perspective of the human being escaping genocide; Blood Meridian from the perspective of the human perpetuating genocide. Everyone involved can be called ‘American,’ for lack of a better word.”
Throughout the book, Row introduces examples of writers of color (like Morrison) doing the work that white writers refuse to do: Jesmyn Ward, Samuel R. Delany, Stanley Crouch, Fred Moten, and especially James Baldwin. He challenges white readers to do better:
Put [Javier] Zamora’s collection of poems, Undocumented, alongside Blood Meridian. This is where American literature has to locate itself in the present: no longer at the point where marked divides from unmarked, where interest and subject matter separate themselves from pure disinterested art.
We must change the way we write, Row argues, to white writers. We must recognize that whiteness cannot be coddled, it cannot be buried, it cannot be treated as insignificant in the shadow of whatever windmills a white writer feels the need to tilt at in a given book. We must take action to move outside the white autonomy of imagination. And that effort will not be comfortable, or easy, or isolated; it will be impolite and messy and unfamiliar and we will fuck it up a lot. “An apartheid of consciousness can’t be undone without self-conscious effort,” Row writes. But there is no alternative. Failing to desegregate and decolonize the white imagination has caused immeasurable political and sociological harm. Row has demonstrated, quite brilliantly, how it causes harm in literature as well. Such injury cannot continue. It’s up to white writers to move back into the cities, back to the places where diversity resides, and listen, listen, listen to their neighbors.