Cancelling Ourselves

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in front of my building, 1994


When I lived in New York, a student at NYU, I lived for several years in Brooklyn. I went to a church in Alphabet City, on the far side of Tompkins Square Park, where the church had changed with the neighborhood around it over the course of a 150 years. It was then a holy mix of good people of all types brought together under a dedicated traditionalist Lutheran pastor, a son himself of a Lutheran pastor. I often worked in their homeless shelter, spending nights there as some sort of a neutral observer. I worked their afterschool program and summer day camp. My other summer job was a bike messenger, careening between Wall Street and Midtown mostly. My NYU roomates and I moved to Crown Heights in Brooklyn in 1993. At that time you could rent a half a floor of a tenement building for $1000 a month at Court Street and Atlantic Avenue. We had three bedrooms, me being the problem solver took the smallest which was more of a corridor than a room, but it sufficed for a desk, a bed, a cedar wardrobe purchased a couple blocks a way on a more puerto rican block than the yemeni block that we were on, with the halal butchery and bodega on the first floor. Locals congratulated me on the good purchase of the wardrobe as I wheeled it three blocks back to the apartment and we wrangled it up three flights of stairs. Below us lived an older Puerto Rican couple above us a Yemeni family, and my bike blocked half the stairwell they rounded our door on the way up the last flight of stairs. The building wasn’t great, sometimes the heat went out mid-winter, or the bathroom ceiling collapsed, or the front door on Court Street would be broken for months, years? And a homeless man slept quietly in front hall. I only knew this because in my senior year I was on NYU’s fledgling rowing team and would leave at 4:45 in the morning to bike across the Brooklyn Bridge which was normally empty except for a couple glimpsed as I flew by, and the man knelt down before the woman’s skirt who gasped audibly and sexily. I read Gravity’s Rainbow in Prospect Park and biked out to Coney Island and took long walks via Bedford-Stuyvesant where black kids threw rocks at me. In a moment of courage born of a summer’s depression about the collapse of a budding romance with a dressmaker named Goldberg who lived with her puerto rican grandmother, I met a woman at the chinese-owned laundromat and took up the guts to ask her out in manner so smooth that even impressed this spawn of the streets of Brooklyn with her smoky voice, knowing eyes, little dreadlocks, and always-ready-for-trouble attitude, she invited me out for a picnic with her friends that same day, and then with self-satisfied pride “broke my virginity” that same night in an otherwise awkward encounter with a rank amateur. The next week she kicked me out of her bed and on Labor Day when I joined her and friends for the West Indian Parade she signaled that I should come by later, and I of course did not understand the signal, and did not come by and was scolded for this. We drifted apart when I joined the rowing team and my senior year began and she took up with more sophisticated men. It was home, and it doesn’t take long to become a New Yorker, so long as you absorb the attitude and lifestyle, take the subways, and generally dive into life, and you’re a New Yorker. And one night, inspired I supposed by a guy who worked at the Italian restaurant where I worked as a delivery boy on 1st Avenue near the church who, insulted for some esoteric reason by a local business owner, threw a bottle through his window, or something like that, I was awakened by a car alarm going off incessantly and I hated those stupid things, and so annoyed by my lack of sleep I wandered out the broken door and walked up and down the block to find the offensive vehicle. Two men in a car rolled down their window, and in my hearing said “take care of it.” So I walked down the street and threw a bottle at the car’s window, which fortunately did not break the window, because the two guys were almost instantly upon me, grabbed me from behind in an embrace of uncertain intention. “What the fuck are you doing?” “I thought you said ‘take care of it’” I answered. He said that he said “We’ll take care of it”. He said “You’re from around here right?” And, fearful that the wrong answer would lead to a more severe New York style ‘warning’ I wisely said “yeah.” His understanding of “from around here” probably entailed being born and raised somewhere in the hinterlands of Brooklyn with a concrete jungle high school and a bodega diet. But, opportunistically, I passed as a local.

I regard those years with a great deal of warm feelings, for a little while a very white kid from suburban twin cities actually gave himself over recklessly to life, growing in the process into a new person, as a young man should. As I would do repeatedly in life, lacking a clear direction, I retreated from that foray into adult life and tiptoed back into late adolescence, always optimistic that I would have the strength to mobilize endless assaults on adulthood, and realized with a disconsolate shock at age 35 that it was too late for another sortie, I was stuck in late adolescence forever.


Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling
over opinions. (Romans 14:1)

Google fed me a story about my fellow UW graduate Jess Krug in London’s Guardian newspaper last weekend before her story hit the American press. I think I had just tried to look up her book in the course of researching lecture for my pre-colonial Africa course which I’m in the midst of putting online. Jess joined the august African history program at UW-Madison just around the time I was finishing up. I vaguely remember some brief interactions with a young white woman of a certain strong-willed type not unlike myself on a good day. A year or two ago I attended one of her panels at an American Historical Association conference, where she dominated the panel about her high-concept research, answering questions in a manner that said she’d thought far more deeply about this than you had, and to the extent that I followed her, it was impressive. She was asking questions about the entire discursive concepts of race and periodization and geography, and marking herself as a scholar to be reckoned with. That’s what you do as a young scholar, either that or you sheepishly present your conventional research questions in a manner that is entirely forgettable. Ada Ferrer was in the audience. She had been a young professor at NYU when I was there, and I had a class and an independent study with her. I did okay in the independent study, but was less than impressive in class, where I believe I might have fallen asleep on at least one occasion, but believe I should be forgiven for that because I was just falling ill of the flu one week, and on the next week was a little high on cough syrup, which if I didn’t take I would disrupt the class with dry hacking, so she should have been thankful. Nonetheless, I suspect, without good evidence, that she wrote a pretty negative letter of recommendation for my grad school applications and it is only fortunate that Tom Spear, the chair of the UW program, in his good-natured faith that enthusiasm was all that was really necessary for success allowed me in the program. I wanted to say hello to Prof. Ferrer, and at least make the point that I had written and book and was making it, but she walked out before the end of the panel, my impression being that she was just there to see Jess, and wasn’t to be bothered with the rest of the panel.

Jess, by that time, had taken on a more goth look, having dyed her red hair black, accented by black lipstick and thick mascara. A look not at all inappropriate to her personality. I greeted her, and she greeted me by name and otherwise blew me off. But that is not an unusual occurrence for me at academic conferences where tall bland white guys like me are a dime a dozen. I tracked down some other UW acquaintances at their panels and was learning quite a bit, nice to see those other eternal adolescents had likewise sallied forth into teaching and publishing their books. It is a profession, I’ve come to realize, filled with eternal adolescents, still eager to please, many still attuned to open-ended creativity that this kind of peter pan existence allows and others wielding ever more dangerously a kind of categorical thinking typical of know-it-all teenagers who happen to be smarter than their teachers. I chatted with Jess’ amiable UW advisor at a reception that evening, and told him that she was quite impressive if a little domineering. “Yeah” he said, “she’s always like that. I’ve washed my hands of her.” I was a little taken aback by this funny turn of the conversation. He just said he had taught her everything he could, which is considerable, and she was off in her own directions. I found the whole thing funny, and not unusual, young scholars are like this, upturning a field is really part of the job description and it takes a little bit of mojo to do it well, and Jess was well on her way.

So it was surprising to read her Medium post on how she had been passing as something-other-than-white for years, but the gonzo nature of her act made some sense given her gutsy intransigent character. It was hard to believe that anyone would take for anything but white, but at least one post-outing commentator said that she understood her to be basically white but perhaps getting in touch with a distant branch of latina identity somewhere in her family tree. I could see that. Apparently the act when far beyond that, and she had become a Bronx barrio chick Jess La Bombalera. It is, I suppose comical when such adolescent acts spin out of control, but what is striking is the merciless quality of her confession and the merciless response. Merciless marks our cultural age, I’m not quite sure what drives it, other than that it is the discursive antagonist to this generation’s performative empathy. But compassion has no place here. As Jess says herself, she believes in cancel culture as a means of power for the powerless, and I would add those who feel themselves to be.

I read her post over a week ago now, and have not re-read it, nor much of the commentary, and I firmly believe that compassion is something other than intersectional alliance, something other than an act of loyalty. Compassion is an act of the spirit. And I know the weakness of my own spirit, and the limits of my compassion as men stand on street corners with cardboard signs or ask drunkenly for bus fare. In a pandemic, families face destitution. For what little I do I should perhaps also be cancelled. Like bad TV shows we imagine that if we just cancel all the bad ones we’ll be left with a good night’s entertainment. What exactly is the nature of the power of cancel culture?

I’d like to explore that, but if I start doing so now, I’ll just get lost in this essay for a week. What is clear is that whatever Jess’ path was to La Bombalera it was not in bad faith precisely. It was not an evil scheme to take advantage of affirmative action privileges or grab a reparations payment for sufferings to which she has no claim. It is something more esoteric, something more schizophrenic, and the merciless response of so many online voices speaks less to what Jess did or did or did not do.

Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. (Romans 14:4)

Some critique her prose, as if her sin was bad writing and not deception, some take her writing to be good and say she is angling for a book deal on her experience…These are the responses of aspiring writers who seek to ride their influencer status to a book or a regular gig at a paying publication. Others assume that Jess was claiming minority status in order to get jobs and fellowships. These are other scholars who compete for fellowships, and whether they compete for restricted or open opportunities, the idea of unfair advantage hits at something that is a major focus for them. Others suspect that she has anonymously judged others as a peer reviewer for publications or fellowships. At her level, I doubt she has had a deciding voice on very many publications yet, and there is no reason why her public identity should have shaped her anonymous judgment of others’ scholarship, and I doubt her identity had much impact on the decisions of peer reviewers on her own work. Such critiques tell us more about the critics than the critiqued.

A psychologist, perhaps a little critical race theory might help here. But ultimately we just have a case that is not unusual among scholars. An audacious dive into a reinterpretation of a scholarly field entails a type of mind meld with your subject as it comes to occupy your thinking day and night. Scholars must become part of communities, not only scholarly communities, but cultural communities, where the memories of their subject matter remain alive among people for whom some conception of the events form an essential part of their own identity. We can think critically, broadly, of what it means when scholars study topics outside their own cultural context, but to simply say that they should not do so is philosophically untenable, and would create another far more fundamental critique of why certain topics become ignored in scholarship. African history remains an under-researched field, not an over-researched one. There is a need for more African scholars in this field not less, but I would seriously doubt that anything that Jess did prevented any African scholar, or even any African American scholar, from speaking or publishing on African history. In fact, from what little I saw of her, she in fact aimed to bring African scholars to the table, and her wild efforts to identify with African American or Latina scholars strike me as an effort, perhaps misguided, to support these scholars and these activists.

I’m seeking to express compassion, not any particular alliance with Jess’ efforts, but I doubt I would disagree with most of her goals, even if I think that her deception of herself and others was also hurtful to herself and others. My compassion for her stems from my sense that what led her down this path was an internal quest residing below the level of her consciousness. She must have been aware at some point, at a conscious level, of the deception, but her drift into it stemmed from no particular decision. She found some anchor in the possibility of Algerian heritage that became the rationalization for the continued drift which was then fueled by an increasing ideological identification with causes important to the African diaspora. To speak in in this community she somehow felt she had to be a member of the community and generated an identity to accomplish that. Her goal was not to take away from the community but to add to it.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. (Romans 14:7)

Something else arises in the complex debate about who can speak for what issue, and the way that identity permits or forbids people to speak on different issues. It is reasonable to insist that on certain close-to-the-heart issues members of an affected community have a particular credibility to which others concerned should be attentive, and that there are certain insights into life and social structure that can really only be known by those who have experienced the impact of the social structure on a daily basis. And as much as it is true that most societies on earth are quite profoundly structured by racial ideologies, such questions of experience are not essentially racial but sociological. Race, after all, is a social construct.

And it is here that the outrage around Jess Krug or Rachel Dalzel strikes at its own foundation. The outrage arises because it is an outrage geared towards the policing of racial identities. Such policing is largely the province of structurally racist societies (and often their police in a literal sense), but precisely because of that structure and the need to speak back to it, those whose racial identities are thus policed insist on being heard and find offense when those whose racial identities are granted favor in such a structure.

But if race is a social construct, as is gender, then why should a Jess Krug or Rachel Dalzel not claim a trans-racial identity and a sense of racial disphoria in the manner of transsexualism? I suppose one can argue that sexual disphoria is a genetic condition that generates an inner need for recognition in society while race is a social construct that imposes a particular recognition in society. But there seems, on the surface, to be something more unfair about a “trans-female” athlete competing against “born-female” athletes than for a “passing-as-black” scholar to compete with a black scholar for research funds. The bigger danger arises in the need for very specific and accurate witness to be communicated about the violence and unfairness of the racialized social structure, and to have those who have not experienced these injustices in their entire upbringing to speak on these issues raises the possibility of confusing the waters, and pressing for the wrong solutions.

But if that is the case then we are confronted with a much more complex question of who should speak and who can be adjudged to have the right experience to authentically address these questions. It raises the possibility that the types of radical solutions and esoteric analysis offered by the scholarly crowd of all races may not speak authentically to the issues at stake. Does someone like Barack Obama speak authentically in this context? He is in no manner African American except by fact of birth as a baby of recognizably African descent in America, and perhaps by the imprint left by a few experiences of everyday racism of the type that structure the society, and perhaps the complex formation of identity that he went through in the quest to figure out what his identity should be, given the way he appears in American society. But he was raised entirely in a white family and in white communities, with the exception of a period of expatriate life in Indonesia with his mother, which remains an essentially “white” experience given the way such expatriate lives are structured. At what point does Barack Obama become a credible voice for African American experience?

We have a lot of books that were given to us when our daughter was born, I don’t know where most of them come from. We were given this one, about a little black girl, it would appear, and the message is something akin to Mr. Rogers’ assurance that “I like you just the way you are.” But it also struck me that, for a million complicated reasons, it was unlikely that a black author would have represented this message through this representation of a little black girl. And indeed both the author and illustrator are white. What exactly are they guilty of here? I do not doubt their good intentions, although I’m suspect about that general message to children that they must “like themselves” as if that were the highest virtue in life. But, yes, you can’t go through life hating yourself. But do we need white writers telling us this is a quiet masquerade? But if they didn’t, would we then complain of the lack of black faces in children’s books? I distrust this book, for reasons allied with the reasons that Jess Krug’s masquerade generated such outrage. But I start with compassion for someone who started out with good intentions.

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Do such authors pass as other than white?

What remains authentic are the crowds who recognize the specific injustice of unaccountable police violence against black communities. Those who experience it see its continued systematic nature. And in the last decade they generated a movement loosely labeled by the poetic moniker “Black Lives Matter” and this movement has made an impact on public debates.

I don’t know. It just seem more useful to respond to a Jess Krug with compassion rather than outrage, and save the outrage for those with a knee on the neck…I acknowledge that I cannot here say “on our necks” because I know full well that this particular knee is not on my neck…but I can reasonably fear that one day it could be if its fascist implications continue to shape our society, and here, I hope, I am allowed to say “our society.”

If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. (Romans 14:8-9)

My compassion comes because Jess fell victim to her own viciousness. The desire of the “cancel culture” to generate community through exclusion, that ancient rite of all community, has a vicious streak that shreds community if not checked by some other sense of community bound by compassion. If those who are not the specific victims of the violence that fuels the outrage are bound to cancel themselves protest, then we will be faced with a society of lost people and overgrown adolescents. Jess said she spent her whole adult life in a deepening deception about the nature of her identity. I wonder then at what point we count the beginning of her adult life. She was an adult upon entering UW grad school, and the deception had not yet begun. But, I can sympathize with a path to adulthood marked by cancellations and restarts. And I suppose she is bound now for a pretty painful restart. And I wish her well. She is an ambittous scholar and the world needs her voice. When we struck with a binary that either we like each other we don’t, either we like ourselves or we don’t. Then we can really live, because life cannot be cancelled.

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