Finding the self in otherness: global journeys in autobiography

What happens when we work strictly within a genre or grouping? When it comes to literature, the outcome can be destructive and boring: we risk isolating creative works, huddling them too close together and becoming blind to their engagement with the outside world. In my last blog I suggested that a discussion of migrant literature can only benefit from open arms and a flexible approach. Here, I put this to the test: I want to explore how minorities (be they migrant, indigenous or otherwise) talk to each other (across genres, oceans and decades) when reflecting on the experience of living a racialised self. I do this by considering a contemporary memoir by an Australian journalist of Aboriginal ancestry, Stan Grant’s The Tears of Strangers, and its engagement with the works of Malcolm X and other black writers of the 1960s.

But there’s another memory that sleeps in a darker corner of my mind. It taunts me, shames me. It’s a hostile witness in my personal trial. It testifies against me, exposes my alibis and makes a liar of me. It leaves the jury of my conscience no choice but to find me guilty – guilty of not wanting to be black … all I needed – at least according to my self-hating five-year-old mind – was a cake of soap.

(Tears of Strangers, p. 48)

Stan Grant’s The Tears of Strangers is never short on melodrama, but it certainly reaches its highest pitch in chapter three: ‘Canaan’s Curse’. In this chapter, we are introduced to Grant’s childhood dilemma, his hatred of his skin colour, which is presented as the key to his identity. Why is this image made so prominent in Grant’s ‘self-making narrative’?.[1] How does an ostensibly negative image from the past strengthen Grant’s current sense of self? Or, to paraphrase legendary psychologist Jerome Bruner: how does Grant’s reconstruction of his past meet his present demands?

It is the most powerful image in the book: Grant, ‘a self-hating five-year-old’, at the bathroom mirror attempting to scrub his ‘caramel skin’ white: ‘For me’ Grant writes, ‘this image defines me more than all the Sunday school hymns and classroom pledges ever could. I was black – simple … There’d be as much chance of breeding a giraffe into a mouse as breeding me white. This was the prism of race and I was trapped in it’. (p. 48) Grant remembers his constant fear of being discovered, how he would deny his race, disowning his parents and ‘two thousand generations’ of his ancestors. As a child, Grant recalls, he never stopped hoping that no one would notice his ‘blackness’.(p. 59). In a theme that continues throughout the book Grant refers to his ‘crime’ and ‘shame’. ‘We’ve grown good at deceit’ he claims, ‘we pale-skinned, thin-lipped, straight-nosed half breeds.’ (p. 49)

Reflecting on Grant’s childhood identity crisis, I initially situated his body-image dilemma into the classic old school psychological category: ‘ethnic self-hatred’. ‘Canaan’s Curse’ seemed a classic example of a member of a minority group internalising the negative stereotypes generated by their ‘reference group’, thus providing me with a ready-made psychoanalytic understanding of Grant’s dilemma.[2] After all, there is no shortage of (chiefly American-focused) works on the topic – all I would have had to do was adjust American theory to Australian practice.[3]

Seeing Grant’s body-image crisis through a psychoanalytic lens, the confused child is caught in Frantz Fanon‘s ‘racial epidermal schema’, he is the black man who ‘suffers in his body quite differently than the white man’.[4] In Fanon’s analysis, such a psychological condition sees a black person accepting the ‘condemnation of white society for his or her state’, living with ‘Shame. Shame and self-contempt. Nausea.’[5] Since revised and reworked in literary, philosophical and psychological works, this framework (I thought) made ‘Canaan’s Curse’ clearly intelligible, and, with Grant even using the terminology himself – the critique was ready-made.

There is, however, a figure missing in this view of ‘Canaan’s Curse’. Look again: we can see the child Grant staring into the mirror looking at his reflection: two bodies, two children and a cake of soap. But who is looking at them? The narrator, Grant’s autobiographical ‘I’: narrator-Grant, is looking at child-Grant, staring at his reflection. The autobiographer performs a double mental conjuring act – not only assuming his childhood subjectivity, but also calling into existence his past specular image. The simplicity of my psychological analysis is called into question when this thirty-nine-year-old narrating Grant is brought into the picture. For, who is this Grant? Grant is (we are told): ‘a son of the Wiradjuri’, a TV journalist, a political correspondent, and a father. Most relevantly here, Grant is a reader, and, judging by his choice of quotations and his bibliography, one who is greatly influenced by African-American writers and historians. What I mean to point out here is that ‘Canaan’s Curse’ is a little too perfect for psychoanalysis based on a concept of ‘self-hatred’, because Grant has already psychoanalysed himself, presenting his childhood dilemma in these terms and pre-empting such an analysis.

In his essay ‘Autobiography and Historical Consciousness’, Karl J. Weintraub introduces the ‘issue of models’ to the study of autobiography.[6] He suggests that just as an individual may strive to ‘adhere to a model conception of the personality’ during a life, so too may an autobiographer mould their past to fit a certain model.[7] While Weintraub suggests that the influence of heroic models of the Western tradition went out of fashion when a strong belief in individuality became apparent, he still maintains that models of ideal selves influence self-conceptions and thus autobiographic forms. This observation is useful in understanding Grant’s autobiography, for, in using a psychoanalytic explanation to understand his past self, he draws upon a model of black selfhood identified by his favourite writers.

The influence of African American author James Baldwin is readily observable in Grant’s autobiography. Three chapters, including ‘Canaan’s Curse’ begin with a quotation from Baldwin; even the William Blake quotation later in the work opens Baldwin’s The Evidence of Things Not Seen. (p. 196) Even Grant’s writing style (direct, angry, and strong on metaphor – particularly prisms, pinwheels and kaleidoscopes), and the form of The Tears of Strangers (a hybrid comprising autobiography, political polemic, history and character portraits) are reminiscent of the American author’s semi-autobiographical essay collections: Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son and to a lesser extent, The Fire Next Time.[8] Baldwin’s portrait of black suffering is particularly relevant here. Baldwin wrote of ‘Negroes who are taught to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world’ and despaired over the difficulty blacks faced in constructing positive individual and group identities in a position of powerlessness.[9] Apart from Baldwin, Grant explicitly credits Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., as heroes discovered in his idealistic university years. (p. 224) While Grant admits to being attracted to Malcolm X’s militancy in the past, I would suggest that it is Malcolm X’s articulation of his body-image that stayed with Grant over the years. In a memorable moment in Malcolm X’s autobiography, the narrator recalls straightening his hair, a powerful – and familiar – image:

This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are ‘inferior’- and white people ‘superior’- that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look ‘pretty’ by white standards.[10]

That black American philosophy and psychology should be absorbed by a young Aboriginal man is not surprising. Many Aboriginal activists, writers and others in the 1960s and 1970s were originally influenced, and Grant no doubt read them in his university years as well.[11] The Aboriginal Australian activist-poet Kevin Gilbert (also on Grant’s reading list), for example, wrote powerfully on the ‘psychological condition of Australian blacks’.[12] What I mean to draw attention to here is the way in which Grant’s self-conception draws upon a model that sees a kind of self-hatred as a necessary stage in the process of black identity formation – that a struggle with one’s body is an essential part of being ‘black’. This does not question the authenticity of Grant’s childhood anguish, but rather suggests that its presentation in the text is informed by a ‘model conception of personality’ provided by Grant’s heroes.[13]

This goes some way to explaining the prominence of this episode in the text. It is not, however, sufficient to explain the fact that Grant sees this ‘self-hating’ childhood moment as the ‘image that defines him’ or why Grant dwells on the guilt and shame it elicits in him as an adult. Grant does not view this episode as a stage in his development, rather it is seen as integral to his identity.

Childhood (more generally) is central to Grant’s identity as a black Australian. Despite Grant’s claim that ‘the book is a move away from the certainty of blackness and whiteness’, he nevertheless has a clear idea that his blackness goes hand in hand with family solidarity and hardship, and is thus irreconcilable with success and the individualism that precedes it.[14] In this way, Grant, despite his constant iteration of the fluidity of categories, provides a limited definition of black identity. Grant’s childhood was marked by poverty and took place within a strong family unit; he thus sees it as the period in his life when he was truly ‘black’ (tellingly in the 2004 edition the cover photograph, and only photograph, is of Grant as a child). When the adult Grant ‘Yearns for his blackness’, returning to his family to ‘seek shelter’, he is in pursuit of his childhood self.

This gives us some idea of why this ‘self-hating’ episode is central in The Tears of Strangers. According to Grant’s logic, when he was five years old, scrubbing himself white he was, paradoxically, at his most black. The criteria: being poor, surrounded by family, and hating his body. In his current state – yearning for his blackness  – adult-Grant only proves (to himself) how white he has become. His present position as a successful journalist, living far from his Aboriginal family, and married to a white woman, is unstable in this textual creation of self – Grant feels he has left his blackness behind. Thus, Grant’s memory of scrubbing his face white, contrary to what he writes, is neither a source of shame nor guilt. Rather, he affords it a prominent place in the text because it is a perfect expression of the blackness he longs to absorb. The unsettling result is an autobiography where self-hatred is brandished forth in an attempt to assert a black identity.

I used the 2004 Harper Collins edition of the Tears of Strangers.

[1] Bruner, Making Stories: Law, literature, life, (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 2003)

[2] Sandar Gilman, Jewish Self Hatred· Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 2.

[3] See especially Sandar Gilman (above) and his later work The Jew’s Body (New York: Routledge, 1991). I also found African-American focused work particularly useful, see William E. Cross, ‘In Search of Blackness and Afrocentricity: The Psychology of Black Identity Change,’ in Racial and Ethnic Identity: Psychological Development and Creative Expression, ed. Herbert W. Harris (New York: Routledge, 1995), 53-72; George Yancy, ‘Whiteness and the Return of the Black Body,’ Journal of Speculative Philosophy 19.4 (2005): 215-41; Claudia Tate, Psychoanalysis and Black Novels (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[4] Frantz Fanon, Black Skins White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 111.

[5] ibid, 116.

[6] Karl J. Weintraub, ‘Autobiography and Historical Consciousness,’ Critical Inquiry 4 (1975): 838.

[7] ibid.

[8] James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name: Notes of a Native Son (New York: Dell, 1961) and The Fire Next Time (London: Michael Joseph, 1963). For more on Baldwin see James Baldwin: The Legacy, ed. Quincey Troupe (New York: Simon and Schuster: 1989).

[9] For example, Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 36.

[10] Malcolm X, with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballentine Books, 1956), 54.

[11] For more on this connection see Bain Attwood, Rights for Aborigines (Crows Nest: Allen Unwin, 2003), 312-49.

[12] K. J. Gilbert, Because a White Man’ll Never Do It (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1973), 200.

[13] Weintraub, ‘Autobiography’, 837.

[14] Stan Grant quote from ‘Aboriginal identity and the loss of certainty,’ ATSIC News (2002): 50-52.

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  1. […] Finding the self in otherness: global journeys in autobiography […]


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