When we speak of a “diamond in the rough,” are we being ironic? For when we say this do we not ignore the dark and organic geologic history of the shiny diamond’s formation? A diamond comes from the rough; it is of the rough. The relationship of the diamond to the darkness from which it emerges is necessarily symbiotic as there would be no diamond without the immense pressure placed on carbon deep beneath the earth’s surface. My coach likes to use this analogy a lot when talking about training, but it is also useful when thinking about the negation of binaries. I believe, after all, that the development of the both/and is, in fact, not so much a destruction of the either/or but the reconstruction of it. It is important not to do away with the tension entirely, but to play with the tension to see how both elements might be more similar, more “in each other,” than previously thought.
Dark/light imagery is a device that has been crafted, exploited, and reworked in the works of Renaissance poets and Gothic novelists, Greek philosophers and French New Wave film makers. The master of this image, as many would posit (including the Dean in Big Machine) is Caravaggio. In my opinion, Caravaggio out does even Rembrandt in this regard. What does it mean that Caravaggio comes up in the section titled “The Damned Unlikely Scholars?” The scholars are constantly working through incompletions: the Polaroid snapshots which make a collage of the mountains, Ricky’s stumble through the dark. The incompleteness, or un-wholeness, is what makes these situations difficult to navigate. Here, we must heed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s warning: stereotypes are not necessarily wrong, but they are necessarily incomplete. The Dean’s power is in his the information he withholds; the scholars search for clues to explain why they wound up in Vermont. Thus, the Caravaggio image is a good one; the metaphor plays out on multiple levels It is my contention that this metaphor drives a lot of the literature we have encountered to this point. . You cannot have the shadows without the light and the light would be redundant and fundamentally unnecessary without the shadows. We see this in Ellison’s Invisible Man as well. The ten drops of black dope in Optic white paint are vital to it being the purest, brightest white on the market. The complementary nature of light and dark, or paint and dope, is a signal of a more complete, or whole symbol; it is the signal of the both/and.
Zoom out one step further and realize how troubling this can be. White supremacy and white privilege, indeed the conception of what it means to be white in America, is predicated on anti-blackness. That slavery was so fundamental to the very existence of American democracy as it is outlined in the Constitution is deeply disturbing and the refusal of some to grapple with this fact might be halting the reconstruction of the either/or into the both/and.
This would seem to necessitate the cultivation of a black aesthetic in line with the Black Arts movement and the aspirations of those like Amiri Baraka. An aesthetic that confronts America’s racist past and denounces a post-racial future. But I’m not so sure. I think Pat Parker came closer in her poem “For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend.” We must forget and never forget at the same time, another tricky both/and. This is precisely the tension at play in what has been called “color blind policy” or “post-racialism.” To forget could mean to overcome and move past, but it could also mean to leave behind. We have to do both at once.
It is here that I must recurve to my chosen epigraph: “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” In my first post, I claimed that this such a tension because we value rigor so highly. What our recent cross-disciplinary work has shown me is that maybe the art and the sociology should work in union. Though in my first post I felt as if Morrison seemed to regret teaching as sociology instead of art, perhaps what she really resented was the incompleteness, the left out other, the other element of the both/and.