Who’s the Fairest of Them All? On Hilton Als’ ‘White Girls’

Hilton Als.

Hilton Als.

Recently I was sitting with a friend in her lovely home before a fire, drinking some bourbon, and shooting the shit. She is, among other things, a white girl. We were talking about the schools nearby and I had questions about them not because I was particularly interested but because I felt obligated to appear so, because she had kids and part of being a friend is meeting people halfway, right? So I was asking things: Is it diverse? What are the kids like? Do you like the parents?

When I was much younger, a scene like this would have been the norm because I was brought up with all sorts of people. and many of them, if the not the majority of them, were white girls. But somehow, as I got older, despite the mooring of our similar backgrounds I, like many of the women I know, found myself increasingly in the company of girls who were mixed race, or brown  and black like me unless I made a pointed effort to make it otherwise. Even still, I was taken aback when my friend that night asked me why in the world would I ask her if her kid’s school was diverse. She was smiling, and her eyes were reflecting the dim light of the fire but she seemed distressed. Why, she wanted to know, would something like that matter to me at all? Didn’t I know she didn’t think of the world that way, didn’t I know she didn’t see me as black? To her I was no race at all, just a person, just a person like everybody else. And didn’t I know she didn’t think about these things, she told me, because she was busy thinking about building her world, and all the small but wonderful ways it was good and all of the ways it could stay that way?

Often I’ve tried to understand how it is I’ve married outside of my race and yet I can count on one hand how many white girlfriends I have. Was this something specific to me? When I asked one friend who splits her time between Europe and the States, she was hesitant to reply, “Like in my circle of 30 friends? Like for real for real? None. I have white women associate ‘friends.’” When I ask another friend in Los Angeles, a black private school girl, a Parson grad, I know from college, if she had many white girlfriends she chatted me back, “No, lol. I have like one. I have co-workers. Are they kind of friends?”

How odd then that we were supposed to be the generation that realized the dream, the children untethered to myth, and prepared to see ourselves in a multitude of realities. But this takes work. Especially when the ideological granddaughters of Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Shulamith Firestone seem senseless about what their sisterhood with girls and women of color might look like, and indifferent to where their should allegiances lie if they want to call themselves “feminists.” Over the summer Miki Kendall created a Twitter hashtag, SolidarityisforWhiteWomen, that went viral. She later said in an interview that she did it because, “she wanted to address a system that enables some and disenfranchises others.” Part of the problem is the silence. Because what is there to say about Lesley Afrin, a writer for Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls once said in an interview, “’Nigger’ is a great word. It just packs so much punch. The two g’s next to each other are like literal two G’s, broin’ out, tough as nails, them against the world. It gives me chills that a word can hold so much power, it really makes me feel like I chose the right profession.” Or Jezebel, a website for women, who as Akiba Solomon pointed out, recently praised R. Kelly’s new album, despite the multiple allegations against him for molesting young (black) girls. In the same month fashion designer Peggy Noland photoshopped Oprah’s face to a slim, naked black body and put it on a dress, she encouraged her clients “to just be bold with it”. Be bold with humiliating the world’s first self-made black woman billionaire. How else to do it, indeed.

Yes, it takes such work. And yet, in my world, for many years, a fun Sunday was having brunch with my girl from the Deep South, who is a black sommelier, and both of us returning to my house to veg out and watch Sex and City. My friend had been dating an older stockbroker for years and to this day, when we discuss him we call him Mr. Big.  When I watched Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture for the first time I sent it to my sister with a note saying, “Look, this is genius. They are like us.” But of course, they aren’t like us. Nor do they see us. We know in shows like Girls and Sex and City, we would not exist because we are blacks girls–and despite going to the same schools, eating at the same restaurants, and sharing the same awful dates–black girls only appeared in Sex and The City as secretaries, police officers, limo drivers, and in the soundtrack. Whenever I listen to the music of Carole King, Laura Nyro, and Karen Dalton or read Joan Didion on the Central Park Five, or spend time with my mother’s group friends I feel nostalgic–are radical white women like them long gone?

When I try to think of a reason for this quiet schism–all of us are women and yet the gulf so seems vast–I return to something Audre Lorde wrote:

Today, with the defeat of ERA, the tightening economy, and increased conservatism, it is easier once again for white women to believe the dangerous fantasy that if you are good enough, pretty enough, sweet enough, quiet enough, teach the children to behave, hate the right people, and marry the right men, then you will be allowed to co-exist with patriarchy in relative peace, at least until a man needs your job or the neighborhood rapist happens along…Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying.

This is probably the quote I should have repeated to my friend that night in front of the fire but somehow it felt easier to change the subject, to something more familiar, like a movie, to Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, because wasn’t that something we both could relate to?

White Girls are both the subject and the namesake of Hilton Als’ first book in fourteen years. The long-time theater critic for the New Yorker, Mr. Als has said that he wanted White Girls to work as a novel, as a book that defies categorization, and to a large extent it does. It is a book of essays and I think it does call to mind the jagged relay of novels where many voices and many characters work together to tell us a larger story–think Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Márquez’s Leaf Storm.

In one essay, Mr. Als writes beautifully about the seduction and meaning behind Truman Capote’s leer in his author shot for his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms; in another, he reads deeply into the particulars of Eminem’s anger as a shunned son of a white single mother turned white-boy-rap god in a world of black men. In the book’s longest piece, Mr. Als suggests that the through-line for his book is something Shulamith Firestone pointed to decades earlier: that to be “a man” black men needed to “untie” themselves from their “bond with the white female, relating to her if at all only in a degrading way. In addition, due to his virulent hatred and jealousy of her Possessor, the white man, he may lust after her as a thing to be conquered in order to revenge himself on the white man.”

Despite the tiredness of riffs like this, riffs that completely ignore the dressing down Firestone received from Second Wave feminist thinkers like Angela Davis, and despite the fact that White Girls is piecemealed together from works Mr. Als has published over the years, the essays themselves – standing alone – never feel exhausted or outdated. Mr. Als has long been a masterful critic, and he remains one of the best working in America today. Having this much of his work finally bound makes this collection absolutely the read of the year. Junot Díaz, America’s best novelist, says as much on its cover. We are made better by writers like Mr. Als and Mr. Díaz: they are both respectively evidence for forms that are faddishly disliked in publishing: short stories and essay collections. And White Girls, flawed or not, should prove that Mr. Als is a national treasure–something I’m not always certain he has gotten his due for over the years.

In this collection, Mr. Als wisely includes his profiles of Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor. He adopts the technique of the skaz to pitch himself fearlessly into the fictionalized voices of Mrs. Little, Malcolm X’s mother, and Richard Pryor’s (invented) sister. While these two pieces in particular struggle to feel real, or actualized, Mr. Als’ will to experiment is always intriguing. Because for the last two decades Mr. Als–with the fiercest mirror directed back at his readers–has been the writer who asked us, with sass and sedition, “I know you are but what am I?”

It would be inconceivable to even begin to understand White Girls without considering The Women, Mr. Als’ first book, that slim genius. In some ways they merge to form a longer chain, a double helix of the sort of refraction and constant reflection that is also a trademark of Mr. Als’ style. In The Women, Mr. Als lived out, with color and vivid honesty, that description he liked to cite in old bios: Hilton Als is a “shameless genius.” The Women is about the Negress as an American token and totem, the Negress as she could be found at large as a narrative, as a spectacle on the six o’clock news, and more specifically the Negress as she appears in Mr. Als’ Barbadian mother; as she appears in Malcolm X’s mother,  or in the acerbic wit and anti-Negressity of the downtown doyenne, Dorothy Dean, the Negress as found in the refinement and eccentricism of Mr. Als’ mentor, and of course, the Negress in Mr. Als himself. He wrote in that book, “I have expressed my Negressity by living, fully, the prescribed life of an auntie man—what Barbadians call a faggot.” The Women is about a man sorting through his motherland. What he finds is a house of mirrors. It is also series of brilliant portraits about black people, a bundle of Freudian knots, and within all of that, Mr. Als still finds a way to twist in his arguments about black sentimentality and his thoughts on the pitfalls of nationalism as it relates to his personal experience of black culture (whatever that means).

Taken side by side, The Women and White Girls are an extended biography of sorts, at times a bildungsroman of growing up in Brooklyn and at others a manifesto. In The Women, there is the chapter about Owen Dodson, the arch but flamboyant black theater director and collector who takes Mr. Als on as a 16-year-old lover, student, protégé, friend, fuck.  “Entering his mouth with my tongue was like entering the atmosphere of another age,” Mr. Als writes, “his breath an asphyxiating growth to which were attached musty books inscribed in now fading India ink.” To describe Owen, Mr. Als shifts into shades of Balthus, and it is astounding, all light pink, Prussian blue and then puke green. He describes the “listerine and liquor” taste of Owen’s old man vomit after kissing him. Mr. Als, does this so many times like this, Owens eventually, becomes Mr. Als’ “first woman.” The language and the colors of his desire are also born from the bright fuchsias, the jouissance of his sisters – Caribbean black girls living out their lives in the late seventies in Brooklyn. Mr. Als comes of age “in thrall” of them in their white lipstick, the gold bangles, chignons, cardigans on brown skin. In sharing their space, by being bound fiercely to his mother Marie, an immigrant from Barbados, Mr. Als convincingly and carefully explains how he grew into what he calls a “a pubescent Negress” who grew to share in their “way of being.”

In White Girls, Mr. Als is again at home in the world of memoir, contradictions, hard truths, and manifesto. His essay, “Gone with the Wind,” begins with its unforgettable first lines about black men who were brutally murdered and lynched by mobs of white Americans: “So what can I tell you about a bunch of unfortunate niggers stupid enough to get caught and hanged in America, or am I supposed to say lynched?” He then parses through his rapturous love for Vivien Leigh, for Scarlett O’Hara. “In the middle of the movie,” Mr. Als laments, “Vivien Leigh as Scarlett suffers, and she says she will never suffer again, and I loved her so much I didn’t want her to suffer. As I grew up, I retained that feeling toward women who looked like my first movie star love: I didn’t want them to suffer, even though they, like Vivien Leigh as Scarlett, could lynch a nigger.” In the book’s longest piece, its main movement, “Tristes Tropiques,” a 90-page rumination, Mr. Als writes of his “twinship” with a straight black male friend who loves white girls and therefore will never love Mr. Als in that way. They are brothers from another mother, bloods in their pink: deep, decades-long friends unlike everybody else. Except those White Girls: the classmates, the editors, and those hippies. Those white girls with their children who make fun of Mr. Als weight and his blackness.  These women insult him, but they are still like him. Mr. Als’ story is rife with just as much scorn as it is adoration for its thematic anchor. He confesses, “I am always attracted to people who are not myself but are.”

When Lena Dunham was catching flack last year for her narrow vision of what girlhood means in New York City, Hilton Als’ published a short piece on the New Yorker’s website about the show. Mr. Als wrote that he was concerned about white people because they are “attacked for that which they cannot help—their whiteness—and that which they can help—their whiteness.”

Mr. Als wrote that, “black journalists, women of color, and any number of blogologists” were confused. “Girls,” he explained, was a show rightfully about Ms. Dunham’s concerns. And didn’t they realize that, “as John Lennon once said if you want your kids to stay white, don’t have them listen to black music. And I think it’s crazy to assume Dunham hasn’t. She grew up in New York, and you can see it in her clothes and body: no white girl allows herself to look like that if she didn’t admire the rounder shapes, and more complicated stylings, that women of color tend to pursue as their idea of beauty.”

The problem here is not Mr. Als’ knack for acting seditious, but rather the basic unevenness, if not lack of rigor behind the ideas he is spouting. Does Mr. Als honestly believe that black women who questioned Ms. Dunham’s vision should not be offended by a show called Girls that consciously or unconsciously promotes the idea that white women alone are sole inheritors of girlhood, whimsy, and good times because of its creator’s dress size? Mr. Als wisely did not include this essay in White Girls; nevertheless, White Girls can be messy at times with this sort of dubious, ideological trolling.

And although White Girls is gorgeous on a sentence level, at times it is unfortunate Mr. Als (for as much as he thinks he isn’t) is so interested in carrying the outdated tulle of these sort of myths because it causes him to miss out on telling more fully the most provocative story in the book: the story of Mr. Als and his closest friend SL, the story of two black men (one gay and one straight) who are in love with lots of things, including white girls – but more importantly each other. No place is this narrative misdirection more evident on a technical level than when we lay with Mr. Als in “Tristes Tropiques” and watch his dear friend pass away, a white woman who loved Basquiat and SL. Up until then we are swept up in the swell of anecdotes and allusions, that Mr. Als has laid along for us. This man is Mr. Als’ twin. I believed that this dying woman, Ms. Vreeland, was their triplet. What Mr. Als does up to this point is such a feat of febrile reverie and spunk that he could take us anywhere. But in a move that feels hasty, Mr. Als goes uncharacteristically stolid: he ends with a easy choice to quickly jerk our gaze away, to something we know, a well-trodden theme and an image all too recurrent from Birth of a Nation to Faulkner and forward: that a frail white woman whom all love, a white girl who has “concerns” and never “agency,” is similar to all other white women who can both love these black boys and at the same time kill them and their kind. This twist should be deep, revelatory but instead it only feels all too obvious and unconvincing.

One of the greatest and most provocative films ever made about “white girlhood” is Jennie Livingston’s complicated but genius documentary, Paris is Burning. To make it, Ms. Livingston, herself a white girl, entered the world of the largely black and Latino gay ballroom culture of New York that flourished in the ‘80s before the plague years. In it, a glorious, blonde Venus Extravaganza purrs to the camera, “I would like to be a spoiled rich white girl. They get what they want, whenever they want it.” In another scene, two women dance on the beach, one is post-operation and the other is not. One rattles off her surgeries, but the other jokes to her that she still has that deep voice.

The true question behind the woman’s snide remark to her friend is of course: I know you are but what am I? What is a woman? What is a man? What is realness? And in what ways do we all pass? What is the abject? What is the adored? So what is a white girl, but perhaps, at this point, more provocatively, what is a black boy? A black man? What is that way of being? What if we expand that notion? Mr. Als writes in White Girls that there is nothing as scary as what he shares with SL: “There was no context for them to understand us, other than their fear and incomprehension in the presence of two colored men who were together and not lovers, not bums, not mad.” In The Women, he testifies brilliantly to the crushing nature of conformity as delivered up by his sisters, “If I did not submit to their view of me, I would become part of a world they hated.” What Mr. Als objects to is the unrealistic expectations that came out from black women in the sixties and seventies, and he says of Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez in The Women: “They wore brightly colored dashikis and robes. Their poetic skills were limited. Their work was strident, empty, and invigorating. They valorized the black male. In actual fact, the black male those poetesses and my sister imagined did not exist, which is one reason they had to imagine him.”

In White Girls, try as he might to buck the sentimentally of that kind of writing  as being essentialist or lacking in imagination (and it is always good to put that and sentiment aside), it is ironic that it is his essays about the black men he profiles (Andre Leon Talley), orbits around, respects (Henry Dumas), reviles (at times, his own flesh), cold shoulders (Basquiat), loves (SL) where Mr. Als’ voice finds precision. Here he has the fine point necessary to shave out stories original enough to actually contain the complicated mirroring of self described in that quote from Shulamith Firestone, and, more importantly, stories that feel bold with self-invention.

In Paris is Burning we watch as the men and women who are victimized by other people’s hang-ups and hate turn victimization into valor. This has little to do with Ms. Livingston, and everything to do with who they are. They invent, sew, stitch, stash and grab, sashay themselves into supermodels, homegirls, businessmen, white girls. They become what they cannot be. And aren’t they, as people whose stories go untold, far more interesting in many ways than what they desire? See it this way: we know what happened to Faulkner’s Miss Emily, but where did her black manservant Tobe go when he walked out the back door and was never seen again? What was his way of being? On a gray day in Washington Square Park in 1984, Paris is Burning captured a beautiful, insectival Willie Ninja, the dancer who taught Madonna how to vogue, pop and lock his limbs into sharp angles, a mime moving like a razor blade. As he acts like he is applying makeup to his face, he speaks:  “As I make my hand into a form like a compact, or a make-up kit. And I’m like beating my face with blush, shadows or whatever, to the music. Then usually, I’ll turn the compact around to face that person meaning like almost like my hand is a mirror for them to get a look.”

There is a moment in White Girls when Mr. Als witnesses Andre Leon Talley being cruelly called a “nigger dandy” by Lou Lou de la Falaise, an elder princess of high fashion’s mindlessness, a daughter of the most boring kind of inheritance. When the room erupts in laughter, Mr. Talley says nothing, He only laughs louder. We are supposed to judge Mr. Talley in this moment. We are supposed to look at him place the white girl before his dignity. I did not care about his dignity, because all I saw was a man perfectly imperfect but bold with invention. And as for Lou Lou, bless her heart, she was same old. Nothing at all new. That is why for Mr. Als there should be no easy choice to quickly turn our attention away because we know he, like Flannery O’Connor, and all rare greats, but like no other writer in recent memory, has the ability to write about the kind of people who can truly expand our sense of what it means to truly build a self, a family, a house, a new language, a space for good and a world of wonderful while acknowledging all that is in between: “the shit and the stars.”