Friday, January 02, 2009

Take Me Black Where I Belong

The second of the 31 Dreamers is Kim who currently lives in Okinawa, Japan. Kim's dream:
So I was trying to get home to my dad's house, AKA what used to be my parents' house before my mom died and what is now owned by someone else because my dad lost the house. Foreclosure cit-ay! But the long country road my parents' house was on was instead Naha's own Kokusai (AKA "international") Street, which is cheesy and horrible like Haight St. [San Francisco] or South St. in Philly. And so the Tennessee road was lined with karaoke and snack bars and shit, but the people on the street were American frat boys who kept making fun of me and I couldn't figure out why. I blacked out on the walk home and starting running barefoot, kept trying to get there but the road never ended. I found a bathroom and went in and was in a stall and a Japanese girl in a kimono was in there, speaking to me in Japanese, and kept picking up pieces of shit off the floor (that were mine) and her face was also covered in my own shit. When I was leaving the bathroom I saw that I was wearing a leopard print skirt and my face was made up in the Japanese "ganguro" style. Insane! I never made it home.

Kim, some years back I read an article by Joe Wood in Harvard's African diasporic journal Transition entitled "The Yellow Negro," about the subset of ganguro (Japanese for "blackface") who specifically parrot African-American styles of appearance and culture. Transition's byline for the article: 
Like their white American counterparts, Japanese kids dig hip-hop, graffiti, and break dancing. In the clubs of Tokyo’s Roppongi district, however, what separates the real from the poser is blackface: darkened skin and curls. Joe Wood wonders whether the Japanese minstrels are trying to be Janet Jackson . . . or Al Jolson.
Then there are the ganguro who darken their skin but lighten their hair (see picture) giving the appearance not of Japanese girls who are trying to look black, but either as Japanese girls who are trying to look like white girls who are trying to look black (e.g. the "orange" tan job prevalent on American college campuses), or as Japanese girls who are trying to look like black girls who are trying to look white (e.g. straight and/or blond "not natural" hair that all the hair salons and dollar stores in my neighborhood specialize in). With the painful complexities and history of race and racism in the U.S., this has been an all but taboo subject outside of academia, a trend that's likely to change as we see more and more people with a visibly "trans-racial" identity (cf: transgender issues were far more invisible a decade ago than they are today). In Japan—a country without a history of Europeans enslaving Africans, and whose social and popular culture is both hyper-accelerated and über-homogenous—is it little wonder that ganguro is what it is? Well, yes, it is a wonder. Now that that's explained, let's move on to your dream:

Clearly Kim, there are places that you want to go back to that are no longer there: a house that doesn't belong to your family anymore; a parent who has left the world of the living; a country road that's been swallowed by commercial sprawl. You want to reconnect with the history that you desire—your feet are bare, making contact with the earth under which bygone things are buried. You are running but you cannot achieve your goal because what's gone is gone forever. 

At the same time you are conflicted in your own role and identity in these matters. Remember when that Tennessee country road seemed so blasé and the idea of Haight Street or South Streets seemed so cool? A lot of alienated young people had the same idea, and so the Haight Streets and Kokusai Streets of the world were created by and for all the people who just didn't fit in to where they came from. These places were probably pretty great before the subcultures that birthed them reached critical mass and were co-opted to become the marketing schemes that they are today. And in the eyes of many, these places are still great—look at how many people flock to South Street in Philadelphia on a Saturday night! But they are not your people, and this is a past that you disavow.

And now your dream has you in Japan, and one of the locals is picking up your own fecal matter and showing it to you—reflecting it back at you like a mirror. And then you see yourself as someone who has bought into the vicious cycle of identity consumerism: a European-American, trying to be a Japanese person, trying to look like an African-American, who might be trying to become . . . European-American.

The dream's imagery is a bit fatalistic, but the message is positive. You obviously recognize the pitfalls of this cycle and so eschew participation in it. You are surrounded by people who bombard you with a fratboyesque cluelessness, yet you stay strong. You know where your roots are and celebrate their strength. It is true that the shortest path homeward is to never leave the house in the first place. But you are wise to travel—to see the world and experience different ways of doing things, and for this reason you perceive the changes in the places that you've left and are more critical of them. You are also more critical of your own changes and the person who you once were—you want to reclaim the desireble parts while shedding the detritus. You want to find that perfect place, free from bogusness and cacophony of karoke bars and fast food. And so you keep running, non-stop, to find your beloved Tennessee country road.


SAJ said...

Huzzah for finding you Morgan! If I ever have a dream I will tell you it, if you'd like. You can track my inane drivel over at

Hope to see you soon,


Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews said...

Stephanie, I'm happy to see you quoting The American Heritage Dictionary so frequently.

SAJ said...

I'm honored but instead of "quoting The...Dictionary" you must have meant "utterly failing to post complete, coherent entries on the important blog anywhere near as often as inspiration or necessity demands."

Didn't realize it until a friend pointed out, but apparently I've stolen and bastardized your project title. Sorry. know...

Anonymous said...

I just read that and it is totally fucking intense! I'd say it's pretty right on, and I love how dreams make you totally vulnerable! Geez, I feel picked apart! But I am playing along, and, well, who doesn't want to air their dirty laundry? Except in a good way, not in a Jerry Springer way! (well, maybe not, it IS on the internet now! Whoa!) Anyway, I am in awe.