Mixing It Up: Richard Rodriguez on 'Brown'. (Culture Watch)

By Alleva, Richard | Commonweal, September 13, 2002 | Go to article overview

Mixing It Up: Richard Rodriguez on 'Brown'. (Culture Watch)


Alleva, Richard, Commonweal


If you go to a bookstore to buy Richard Rodriguez's Brown: The Last Discovery of America (Viking; see review, page 30), you might find it, as I did, in the sociology section. And, gazing at the author's markedly Hispanic face on the front of the dust jacket, you could find yourself thinking, "Ah, another work about America's fastest-growing minority and its special place within the American scene."

That wouldn't be an absolutely irrelevant expectation, but this book is no more a contribution to "ethnic studies" than Moby-Dick is a treatise about whaling. Brown is a meditation, an extended prose poem or lyrical monologue, with dips into grouchiness and flights into pixilation, that portrays the United States as a country where barriers, categories, and--eventually--ethnicities are constantly infiltrated, undermined, obliterated. For Rodriguez, "brown" isn't just a skin color but stands for the breakdown of categories and the mixing of visions. Any cultural mutant can be "brown."

Such a cultural mutant is Rodriguez himself: A homosexual Catholic who will not be found in the front lines of act-up during their next march into Saint Patrick's. A Hispanic man of letters more devoted to nineteenth-century British literature than to the "magical realism" of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A consumer of pop culture turned on by Broadway musicals rather than mariachi. A writer who will quote Joseph Addison in the pages of his latest book but not Cesar Chavez. A traitor to his race, you might say. But that label is an example of the very sort of emotional blackmail that Rodriguez believes pressure groups perpetrate.

Trying to come to terms with his own quiddity, Rodriguez tracks down "brown-ness" everywhere. He sees it both as the cause of failure of dual-language programs in Californian schools and as the nemesis of those groups seeking legal recognition of English as the official U.S. language. Kids coming together erotically will also come together linguistically.

He sees "brown" celebrated in America's classic novels, Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick, not just because the sailing crews of both books are interracial but because "in American places where water seduced or penetrated the landscape, the promiscuity of the horizon encouraged African Americans who lived near those places to speak the truth about themselves. In New Orleans and Charleston, African Americans often described themselves as 'Creoles' or 'mulattos'...But the landlocked places kept to the shackle of blood-as-fate; color within the lines."

"Promiscuity" is a blessed word in this book, but not as a denotation of sexual license. Rather, it is the force that uncovers the truth about one's real thoughts and desires and talents. Thus, a brown-skinned Californian boy named Richard does become entranced by original Broadway cast LPs even though it may have seemed a very odd source of pleasure for such a boy in such a place. But there you are. And who could have predicted that his pretty sister would go on to win male hearts not in Los Angeles but in Paris with her mexicaine looks and Audrey Hepburn coats? But there you are again. And how come a black singer named Mabel Mercer wasn't specializing in Fats Waller or Duke Ellington when she became the toast of New York in the 1950s but was wowing audiences with the songs of Cole Porter and Noel Coward? Well, she was educated by British nuns who insisted on public-school elocution, and there you are yet again.

But sometimes such promiscuity meets a firm resistance from a society insisting not only on justice but constant political correctness of appearance. At Stanford University in the 1950s, a Yurok Indian named Timm Williams decked himself out in a camp parody of Native American dress and won, at first, great popularity as the mascot of the Stanford Indians football team. But when Native American protestors took action, Williams's act was banished. …

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