The Power of PARIAH

Dee Rees: The Power of the PARIAH

In PARIAH, Dee Rees’ poetic portrait of a young woman struggling to find herself, Alike (Adepero Oduye) doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. To her family, her behavior, even though she is still in the closet, appears too manly. To her lesbian friends, she’s not butch enough. While the film is not autobiographical per se, Rees drew on life experience in creating Alike. As the writer/director recounted to The Advocate, her family has a tough time accepting her as a lesbian: “It was a hard struggle to get them to realize that nobody did anything wrong and there’s nothing wrong with me.” But Rees had an equally difficult time fitting in as a lesbian: “I’d go to lesbian parties. I felt like I wasn’t hard enough to be butch, but I wasn’t wearing heels and a skirt, I wasn’t femme, so I felt like I was sort of invisible.”  In the end, Rees, like Alike, became a pariah, as defined on the film’s poster: “a person without status,” “a rejected member of society,” “an outcast.”  But as both Dee and Alike discovered, this place of persecution can also be a place of power, a label that allows them to redefine who they are and what they want to do. Indeed artists, from Emily Dickinson to Audre Lorde, have turned the tables on those who would oppress them by affirming, rather than denying, their special pariah status.

Emily Dickinson: A Poet Pariah

Emily Dickinson, a daguerreotype taken at Mount Holyoke, in December 1846 or early 1847; popular T-shirt of her poem.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is today considered one of the great American poets. Yet, of the more than 1700 poems that Emily Dickinson wrote, fewer than 12 were published while this famous recluse of Amherst, Massachusetts was alive. In her essay Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich writes that Dickinson found power in her identity as a female poet, removed from society, in that she “chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed...She carefully selected her society and controlled the disposal of her time...neither eccentric nor quaint; she was determined to survive, to use her powers, to practice necessary economics." One of her most famous poems sets out a poetics of being a pariah:

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

First published in 1891, this short verse has gone on to be one of Dickinson's most anthologized and written about works. And while there is little biographical information about its meaning, it speaks to, as the literary critic Harold Bloom points out, “a universal feeling of being on the outside.” And, moreover, finds strength in being excluded.

Claude McKay: An Early "Outcast"

A Jamaican-born writer who moved to the United States in 1912, Claude McKay went on to become a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Throughout his life, McKay continually refused any simple identification. While he moved to the U.S. in 1912, he put off becoming a citizen until 1940. Even while trying to find his place in America, he regularly lived abroad, writing about his displacement both in the States and in Europe. While radically left in his politics, he worked alongside, but adamantly refused to become a member of, the Communist Party. He regularly had affairs with men, but never identified as a homosexual. In 1922, McKay published the poem “Outcast” as part of a book of poems entitled Harlem Shadows. This poem, much admired by later writers like Richard Wright, helped define the pariah state of being African-American, but also is a personal indictment based on McKay’s experience:

For the dim regions whence my fathers came
My spirit, bondaged by the body, longs.
Words felt, but never heard, my lips would frame;
My soul would sing forgotten jungle songs.
I would go back to darkness and to peace,
But the great western world holds me in fee,
And I may never hope for full release
While to its alien gods I bend my knee.
Something in me is lost, forever lost,
Some vital thing has gone out of my heart,
And I must walk the way of life a ghost
Among the sons of earth, a thing apart;
For I was born, far from my native clime,
Under the white man's menace, out of time.

Langston Hughes: The "Darker Brother"

Langston Hughes, one of the great poets of the Harlem Renaissance, was quick to joke that his literary vocation was an accident of racism: “There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows — except us — that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me as class poet.” Nevertheless, he excelled, defining a strong new voice, one filled with humor and anger. In 1926, at the age of 24, he published The Weary Blues, a remarkable collection of poems. One of the more famous inclusions, “I, too,” begins as a powerful rebuttal of Whitman’s blithe democratic spirit in Song of Myself:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong. …..

That same year Hughes expanded on his black pride in a famous essay published in The Nation, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." He wrote in part,

“[T]o my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering 'I want to be white,' hidden in the aspirations of his people, to 'Why should I want to be white? I am Negro—and beautiful!' So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, ‘I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,’ as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world.  … The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. …We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves.”

Richard Wright: Born Apart

Portrait by Gordon Parks; an early bestseller.

When Richard Wright published Native Son in 1940, it became a bestseller, catapulting its author to fame and fortune. In 1945, he followed it up with Black Boy, an autobiography in which he explored his place in the white world — a world in which he was “held at bay by the hate of others” and “continuously at war with reality.”  In Chapter 3, Wright writes how he drew inspiration from his pariah status:

At the age of twelve I had an attitude toward life that was to endure, that was to make me seek those areas of living that would keep it alive, that was to make me skeptical of everything while seeking everything, tolerant of all and yet critical. The spirit I had caught gave me insight into the sufferings of others, made me gravitate toward those whose feelings were like my own, made me sit for hours while others told me of their lives, made me strangely tender and cruel, violent and peaceful.

In 1947, Wright, more and more critical of race in America, moved to France. In 1951, he explained his need to be a national outsider in his essay “I Choose Exile.” Originally written for Ebony, the magazine – once it got a sense of Wright’s critique of American politics – put off publishing it. But his impassioned stance on being an outsider helped guide the next generation of writers, as well as the emerging civil rights movement. At Wright's death, James Baldwin wrote, “he had a tremendous effect on countless number of people whom he never met, multitudes whom he will now never meet.”

Jean Genet: The Criminal Poet

Jean Genet 1947 photograph by Brassaï (Gyula Halász).

Few figures define the poetics of the pariah better than the French iconoclast Jean Genet – a gay writer, a career criminal (with substantial prison time to prove it), an outspoken champion of the political underdog. Historian Richard Ivan Jobs explains that, “Not only a thief and vagabond, Genet was also a homosexual, which further defined him as a deviant, both socially and sexually. His novels revel in lurid detail while presenting a tale of his youth as a self-proclaimed pariah. … Labeled a thief and a delinquent by society, Genet accepted these terms as transformative and, in the end, sacred.”

In 1949, when Genet was facing a life sentence after receiving his tenth criminal conviction, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau successfully petitioned the French president to have the sentence set aside. That same year Genet wrote and published his autobiographical novel, The Thief’s Journal, in which he wrote, “Limited by the world, which I oppose, jagged by it, I shall be all the more handsome and sparkling as the angles which wound me and give me shape are more acute and the jagging more cruel.”

Toni Morrison: The Conscience of the Pariah

Toni Morrison accepting her Nobel Prize

With a Nobel Prize for Literature and a Pulitzer to her name, Toni Morrison would hardly seem a pariah. But her work reflects deeply the ways in which African Americans have both been rendered pariahs by dominant American white culture and have used that outsider status to overcome their oppression. In her 1994 Conversations with Toni Morrison, Claudia Tate asked, “Do you take particular delight in the unusual character, the pariah?” And Morrison answered: “There are several levels of the pariah figure working in my writing. The black community is a pariah community. Black people are pariahs. The civilization of black people that lives apart from but in juxtaposition to other civilizations is a pariah relationship. In fact, the concept of the black in this country is almost always one of the pariah. But a community contains pariahs within it that are very useful for the conscience of that community.”

In her 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye, Morrison dramatizes how dominant white culture renders African Americans into pariahs. The title comes from the wish of the black-skinned main character, Pecola, to have blue eyes to match those of her white doll. As Pecola sees more and more horrendous things happen with her non-blue eyes, Morrison makes clear how others simply don’t see Pecola at all. Morrison writes, “Long hours she sat looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised at school, by teachers and classmates alike.” 

In her 1993 Sula, Morrison celebrates the power of being a pariah. On her deathbed, the title character, a fun-loving social outcast, celebrates her difference. She explains that she’s just like other women of color -- “Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I’m going down like one of those redwoods. I sure did live in this world.”

Audre Lorde: Sister Outsider

In September 30, 1979, Audre Lorde took the stage as part of New York Institute for the Humanities' conference on Simone de Beauvoir called “The Second Sex: Thirty Years Later.”  As she looked over the audience of over 800 women, mostly white, straight and middle class, she exclaimed: “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.”

Audre Lorde, born in Harlem to immigrants from Grenada, found in poetry her first tool to “dismantle the master's house.” After writing her first poem at age 8, she created a powerful legacy of work that continually re-imagines her multiple identities as, in her words, a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” But also, as the title of her essay collection, Sister Outsider, expresses, she is a woman apart. For her poetry activism were one and the same. She explained to Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work, "I loved poetry, and I loved words. But what was beautiful had to serve the purpose of changing my life, or I would have died. If I cannot air this pain and alter it, I will surely die of it. That's the beginning of social protest." In her poem, “A Litany for Survival” (included in her 1978 anthology The Black Unicorn: Poems) Audre Lorde writes:

“and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive”

Dorothy Allison: Pride and Tragedy

Dorothy Allison was born to a 15 year-old unwed teenage girl, grew up poor, and sexually abused by her stepfather, in South Carolina and Florida. She was the first member of her family to graduate from high school, and later college. Allison wrote her life into fiction with Bastard out of Carolina, which was one of the five finalists for the 1992 National Book Award. In that debut novel, she wrote, “The day I was born started off bad and only got worse. I guess I was lucky I got born at all.”

She later explained in her essay “A Question of Class,” her novel was more than just a description of where she came from. Of course, she notes, “Me and my family, we had always been they.”  But she goes on to say, “Writing Bastard Out of Carolina became, ultimately, the way to claim my family's pride and tragedy, and the embattled sexuality I had fashioned on a base of violence and abuse ... Most of all, I have tried to understand the politics of they, why human beings fear and stigmatize the different while secretly dreading that they might be one of the different themselves. … To resist destruction, self-hatred, or lifelong hopelessness, we have to throw off the conditioning of being despised, the fear of becoming the they that is talked about so dismissively, to refuse lying myths and easy moralities, to see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary. All of us — extraordinary.”

Holly Hughes: National Pariah

The performance artist Holly Hughes found her pariah status pushed to national headlines when in 1990 when she was one of four artists whose NEA grants were revoked after the National Endowment for the Arts was pressured by conservative groups to reject certain artists. Right-wing firebrands like Sen. Jesse Helms labeled her a “garbage artist.” The then-chairman of the NEA, John Frohnmayer, publicly exclaimed (as somehow a self-evident reason for Hughes’ de-funding), “Holly Hughes is a lesbian and her work is very heavily of that genre.” Hughes, however, views her monologue-based performance pieces as something else. "My work may be perceived as shocking,” Hughes told the New York Times, “but that's not necessarily my intention. To certain people the fact that I'm 'out' is a shocking thing. …I want my work to be open, for people to think about it in relation to family, to sexual shame, to visibility, to invisibility.” As part of her performance piece Clit Notes, Hughes tells a poignant yarn about kissing her girlfriend in front of a Ukrainian meat market with the sign “We’re free” on it. After the owner breaks her reverie by calling the two “shameless,” Hughes identifies the power of shame in being a pariah and the need to act shameless in the face of it: “I would rather have that man with the ham see me as brazen. I would rather not have him see any of my pain, because I know how he would use it against us, how he would call that pain proof of the illness we are carrying, when all it means is, there is a war going on and all of us has been hit, some of us more than others.”

Catherine Opie: Pariah Portraits

Self-Portrait / Cutting (1993)

Catherine Opie became noticed as a photographer for her “Portraits” series, a collection of photographs taken between 1993 and 1997 of members of San Francisco’s and Los Angeles’ queer communities. A political activist who took part in ACT UP and Queer Nation in San Francisco in the 80s and 90s, Opie saw how the people she loved were not only being marginalized but dying off. As a reaction, she focused on making her subjects’ otherness the norm. Inspired by 16th century German artist Hans Holbein, Opie saw “an equality to his paintings — they weren’t demigod portraits, they were just incredibly detailed and real. When I saw that, I realized that I wanted to mirror his work with members of my own community. It seemed like a good conversation to have, especially in relationship to the s/m community, which was thought of —and still is thought of, to an extent — as predatory or perverted. S/m was often framed in the language of the abnormal, which stripped it of its humanity. I wanted people to have a humble moment with my friends.”


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