Guest Post by C. I. Aki: When the Color of Black is Invisible
This is guest post by filmmaker, writer, and cultural critic, C. I. Aki. Aki describes his “literary upbringing” as “an unconventional one that featured an odd mélange of street and letters.” Aki writes passionately about the ways in which we engage, (mis)understand, and participate (as well as fail to participate) with others. Aki’s work—via film and pen—seeks to challenge our cultural categories, in particular those that objectify and present themselves as having neatly summed up what this or that group is and what individuals and groups have the potential to be (and not to be). In his post, Aki gives us a taste of his latest film, The Runner, in which he takes up and translates into the medium of film everything from Homi Bhabha’s discussions on the “ideology of sight” to Toni Morrison’s insights on the metaphor of race in Playing in the Dark to Graham Ward’s musings on difference. Enjoy and be sure to share your thought with Aki!
“Whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink?”—Moby Dick.
“Since the beginning of the nation,” wrote Ralph Ellison, “white Americans have suffered from a deep inner uncertainty as to who they really are. One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize upon the presence of black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the ‘outsider’.” Before the election of president Barack Obama, the topic of racial prejudice was fast becoming a topic people considered undesirable to bring up, somewhere in between extraneous and spurious, and at worst knotty and entangling. But with the historic election of Barack Obama four years ago, the nation seemed to have given a collective sigh of relief regarding the matter of racial prejudice, eager to hurriedly close the book on the matter and proclaim, “class dismissed”—Saved by the bell Barack. This breathless declaration of the matter as resolved was so pervasive that even some blacks—primarily those who occupied positions in mainstream America (e.g. Terry Ellis, assistant professor at Columbia University)—went on the record to declare the happy days of Post-Racial America. Proclamations of Obama’s election as the premier sign signifying a new Post-racial America served to solidify the myth of a so-called Age of Obama. Meanwhile, back in the trenches of culture, we find many everyday blacks, those burdened and beaten down, having become significantly poorer during this recession. For these individuals, daily reality race confronts them, offering not platitudes on high, but the simple truth that race still matters, prejudice still remains, and the discussion is still relevant.
It was Toni Morrison who observed in her essay, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination that, “Race has become metaphorical—a way of referring to and disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic division far more threatening to the body politic than biological ‘race’ ever was. [...] It seems that it has a utility far beyond economy, beyond the sequestering of classes from one another, and has assumed a metaphorical life so completely embedded in daily discourse that it is perhaps more necessary and more on display than ever before.”
My upcoming short film, The Runner, deals with many of the themes Morrison so eloquently brings to our attention—all of which lead to the major theme: our need for real bodies of community. One subtext that emerges in the film is our cultural indifference to difference. For example, in the film, race as reduced difference and distance functions as a metaphor of tension and uncertainty. We sense this in the opening scene with the juxtaposition of the lead female, Grace, who is white, and the titular character, the runner, who is black. Here in this first scene, we begin with a subtle form of inaccessibility and disconnect between the runner and Grace. By happenstance they come into and occupy the same social space and spatial location. The closer the two come toward each other (reducing the literal distance between them), the more tension the scene is designed to produce. We see in the runner’s face, a subtle awareness that he is unwelcome within this space—a sense of being unwelcome that is communicated via Grace’s discomfort, disinterest, and a tinge of distrust.
As the film progresses, the narrative feeds our racialized cultural assumptions. A few scenes after the opening scene, the tension heightens with the revelation of the dead white girl coupled with occasional takeaway shots throughout the film of the runner sprinting desperately down a desolate road, isolated from everyone else in order to underscore his assumed outsiderness. As the story develops, we find out that the runner is not the antagonist. In fact, at one-point he is the victim, who rises to the challenge and ends up becoming the victor—a victor whom Grace at first viewed as a distrusted outsider. As it turns out, the real antagonist is the eccentric yet mad Robert Franks, whom Grace imprudently trusts. Interestingly, she describes Franks as being “so unlike [different than] anyone else.” This is, curiously, a different kind of difference: a “difference” within a familiar domain; Franks is white, and thus a difference that doesn’t divide or deter, but in fact generates great curiosity, cachet and delight (as difference is indeed designed to do). Because in the domain from whence it comes—white, this difference is given élan rather than exclusion). As the film ends, a weeping, traumatized Grace, who has buried her face and body in the arms of the runner, looks to thank him for saving her life. We see his black body, the so-called opposite color of Grace’s white body, carrying the cuts and scars of his sacrifice for her, and we see Grace discover that the runner is not an outsider to her, but in fact, her hero. The image of Grace inside of him, his black body wrapped around her white body, symbolizes a union of the two, as one body, both alive, both different, yet both as one. As he walks off into the night, Grace recalls that he was the same fellow in the beginning of the film that she saw and anticipated for a moment as different; but, as is revealed to the viewer at the end of the film, she found a general interest in him approaching tender curiosity. Although he never “saw” (via the gaze or “ideology of sight”) her yet still saved her, she “saw” him. At the end of the film, as he walks away now her hero, Grace realizes that the grandeur of her salvation and his heroism is that in their embrace they were one and had always been one, members in communion of the true and real community body: a body of life, and of life more abundantly.
Grace found in the runner, not only the physical salvation of her life from the hands of the deranged Robert Franks, but also an expanded understanding of the human experience and a greater self-clarity and self-understanding by the expanded experience of the humanity (and community body) to which she belonged. In essence, Grace discovered in the runner’s so-called difference a transfiguration of her being and ontological possibilities of which no amount of self-affirmation via homogeneity can provide. This is why our cultural indifference to difference robs and stultifies our human experience. As theologian Graham Ward writes, “There is no pure difference. Difference qua difference is an abstraction no one could recognize. Difference is relative, and distance spatializes that relativity.” So-called “difference” in our American imagination exists insofar as it is made to be negative. That is, difference is used to divide, to privatize space (place over space), to sub-ject one person for the purpose of protecting/securing/propping-up another, and to make the case for holding power and then distributing the adjudications of that power along particular fixed and discriminatory lines. The myth of pure difference is at odds with the idea of a real society; a rejection of what it means to be members of a body. In this scandal lies the refuge of cultural cowards, the insulation of “faux-hemians”, the artillery of bigots, and the barriers to the uniquely beautiful. Its maintenance—the mythos of intractable difference—is necessary for those who are comfortable with their security in the present “order of things,” no matter how superficial and unfair the arrangement is or how estranging it is to others. Thus, their security is to lie to themselves, like a short man forcing those around him to drop to their knees to validate his claim that he is taller than them. This is the tendency of how we view identities and “being.” We do not participate in a true economy of bodies and souls, and as a result we often fail to produce truly penetrating lives (penetrating for the whole human race). As Graham Ward observes: in “an economy of response, [there is] a structured dialectic between self and other, in which difference and affinity, distance and proximity is negotiated in a sensuous move from sight to touch” (and, I would add, to psychic penetration). This is how we must engage our fellow brothers and sisters, not as others, but as another, another member of the same body. As W. Somerset Maugm wrote, “the essence of the beautiful is unity in variety.”
As we tried to illustrate in The Runner, difference (metaphorically represented by race) should not cause division but discovery, we showed how a selfless humanity, one that is courageous and heroic saves our humanity. This was in contrast to a few of the other characters in the film, who chose to save themselves because it was convenient and did not cost as much; yet in the end, theirs was a fleeting gain, a false salvation, a superficial one that paled in comparison to the real salvation, the real humanity that shined no matter how bloodied and disparaged. The runner does not only represent black people, and Grace does not only represent white people, they both represent the whole of human race, individual members of the real community body.
Given this real community that unites us, in closing I want to briefly point out some of the heroic people who are white but not insulated within white America. To speak for myself (and certainly I speak for many other blacks), there are many non-blacks, and specifically white Americans who make up my social circle. Some of these people did not appreciate me until the “second remove,” when, after their initial decision of indifference, they came to eventually discover what I had to offer (as I saw the same desire for discovery in them), and not as a matter of marketplace profit, but human profit and cultural expansion. Some of these people are my closest of friends (one is my best-friend), some are colleagues, and some are acquaintances, many are members of our production team. They have impacted my life, and I hope I have theirs. They have made the human race a more heroic one, and thus a more real one by not beholding what is unfamiliar with an ideology of difference, but by an earnest participation in all that the human experience has to offer. I will write more about this “second remove” and the other factors that go into this sub-economy of response at a later date. But for now, it is important again for us to recognize that we do have a narrative of difference in our culture, and we must overcome our cowardice, our selfishness, our squareness, our bigotry, and our insulation to be heroic humans, to effect a heroic human race. This is what we must do; this is what we can do. Who are you running for?
 This essay was written before the re-election of president Obama. I plan to comment at a later date on why the re-election of Barack Obama offers real hope that we will one day live in a post-racial America.
 Here I borrow the wording of Clement Greenberg (second remove), when he writes that kitsch art is decided/consumed on the first look. Indeed, it is made for that. The true art is not so obvious, and requires disinterested contemplation that may not reveal its true beauty until, say, the second remove. But the need to engage it deeply, thoughtfully, and impartially is the essence of its truth and beauty. Some people haven’t gotten to truthfully behold me until they were able to take the time to learn me, participate in me, and see what I had to offer. This is what I mean by the “second remove”.