TWO SIGNIFICANT WRITERS of the 20th century — Audre Lorde and James Baldwin — pointed again and again to the ways in which whiteness debased, devalued, and attempted to destroy American life — not just for peoples of color, but most acutely for white Americans. In this tradition, Hari Kunzru has written a timely novel that demands an examination of the toxicity and perniciousness of whiteness. With razor-sharp insights, White Tears depicts what Greg Tate calls “everything but the burden”: the history of whiteness in the United States as a series of violent appropriations and erasures of black life, black experience, and black culture — which it has attempted to eliminate both physically (the prison industrial complex is but one recent example) and culturally (by turning black culture into commodity fetish).
White Tears centers on two young white men “billing [them]selves as audio craftsmen, artisans of analog,” whose adventures in record collecting and producing lead them through the ghostly terrain of the past via the American South. The novel opens with Seth, a shy young white male, who has recently graduated from a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. Kunzru offers little about his past other than a traumatic “break” in high school after his mother died, during which time he stayed indoors for six months. In his room, Seth obsessively recorded the sounds of himself breathing and of the footsteps of his brother or father walking outside his bedroom door, digging “for a hidden sound that lay underneath the everyday sounds.” He arrives to college as a loner, without a past: what Junot Díaz has called a “default whiteness that goes unremarked.”
When Carter Wallace, a hip white trust fund kid, notices him, Seth is on the campus lawn eavesdropping on conversations via a mic mounted in his homemade parabolic reflector, an act that he confesses is “objectively creepy,” but which Carter recognizes as a useful skill. While Seth is familiar with being alone and relegated to the quadrants of the invisible and uncool, Carter pulls him out of his “cockroach hole,” inviting him into a world of expensive vintage vinyl, turntables, and amplifiers, all-night recording sessions, campus parties full of adoring young women, and record-buying trips across the country. Together, they combine Carter’s access with Seth’s listening skills to “reproduce effects we’d heard on music made at Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio in Jamaica.” Seth confesses, we “worshipped music like Perry’s but we knew we didn’t own it, a fact we tried to ignore as far as possible, masking our disabling caucasity with a sort of professorial knowledge: who played congas on the B-side, the precise definition of collie.” When they move to Brooklyn after college, they shed their past offenses to adapt to something that is presumably effortless, less discernibly racist:
Carter, who briefly owned a red-gold-and-green beanie hat, lived in fear that pictures of him wearing it would turn up on Facebook. We really did feel that our love of the music brought us something, some right to blackness, but by the time we got to New York, we’d learned not to talk about it. We didn’t want to be mistaken for the kind of suburban white boys who post pictures of themselves holding malt liquor bottles and throwing gang signs.
However, where Seth has some degree of vulnerability and responsibility (particularly because he lacks a vast financial safety net), Carter emanates a sense of invincibility. Carter is a familiar figure, cloaked in a robe of privilege reserved for the white elite. He has a casual disdain for any rules, an ability to be whomever he wants, whenever he wants, and he is willfully innocent to the world around him. He wears dreadlocks in college, appears to be an “imposing figure” despite his slight physical stature, never explains the ways expensive objects appear in his life, and never acknowledges that his family name is plastered on buildings across campus or “what the Occupy crowd said about him.”
Nothing and no one is valuable to Carter. One evening, when Carter furiously destroys some musical equipment by throwing it out the window — including an item Seth buys himself with money he scraped together from tips — Seth repeatedly tells him that someone could have been walking by. Carter replies with a reckless and violent disregard: “Don’t be such a pussy, he sneered. It’s just a thing.” Carter can afford this attitude, because he was born into the privileges afforded by blindness: “Money was Carter’s invisible helper, a friendly ghost making things happen in the background. Cars arrived, restaurant tabs got picked up. When it was time to change scenery, money dissolved the city into a beach or a ski lodge. The thing was never to point out that this was happening.”
Most disturbingly, Carter performs one of whiteness’s most cunning and ironic forms of rhetorical violence, which is to disdain white people as if he is not part of the tribe. One of the reasons “he listened exclusively to black music” was because “it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people. He spoke as if ‘white people’ were the name of an army or a gang, some organization to which he didn’t belong.” When a major record label approaches them to produce an album of a famous “it” white rapper, making an album called “My Past Lives,” his “tribute to black music,” Carter is enraged by the appropriation, the thieving. “This is our music, Seth.” He says. “We live it. We feel it. He thinks he can just swan in and buy it off the shelf?” This is whiteness (particularly white liberalism) at its most insidious — masking its own erasure of blackness by blaming other white people for its crimes.
This pathology of whiteness is the foundation for a novel that spends the bulk of its narrative delving into the American past by going back to the South and exploring the roots and routes of black music and Jim Crow. When Seth records a chess player in the park humming an old blues song to himself, Carter convinces him to mix the song and brand it as the work of a bluesman, Charlie Shaw. This act is part of a longer American legacy of co-opting the blues, which Kunzru identifies as a capitalist obsession with possession. Their subsequent forgery and Carter’s hunt for a series of rare blues albums put them in contact with a collector who insists that Shaw is real. In one such expedition, Carter is beaten unconscious in a mysterious encounter in the Bronx, bursting their bubble of protection. Once Seth convinces Carter’s sister Leonie to travel down South to find clues to the legacy of their present condition, Kunzru tailspins his readers into a deep past — most of the narrative contains echoes and clues, ghosts and premonitions, the haunting legacies of the North and South, the blues, and the systemic violence of white supremacy. As Seth and Carter travel south, the novel also becomes more aesthetically experimental, more ambitious, more difficult (in the spirit of something like Jean Toomer’s Cane). Kunzru employs stylistic risks as he forgoes a strictly linear narrative; he does not distinguish which character is speaking, and he confuses the time period in which the plot takes place, thus revealing the ways in which the present is intricately woven with the past. Kunzru has listened closely to the sounds most attuned to American life, and his novel pays homage to the legacy of the blues that permeates much of the American present.
In “Richard Wright’s Blues,” Ralph Ellison describes what contributed to shaping Wright’s “attitude toward his life” and the “quality and tone” of Black Boy. “The Negro blues,” Ellison explains, is
an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.
“Their attraction lies in this,” Ellison explains, “that they at once express both the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit. They fall short of tragedy only in that they provide no solution, offer no scapegoat but the self.” The lyrics that echo through the landscape of this novel are emblematic of Ellison’s description of how the blues are borne:
Believe I buy a graveyard of my own
Believe I buy a graveyard of my own
Put my enemies all down in the ground
Put me under a man they call Captain Jack
Put me under a man they call Captain Jack
He wrote his name all down my back
Like many blues songs, these lyrics testify to the conditions of forced black labor (slavery, chain gangs, among a few), of brutal violence, and the denial of one’s humanity, and “finger its jagged-grain” to turn these catastrophes to a “near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”
When Seth plays Tommy Johnson’s 1928 Memphis recording “Canned Heat Blues” for his sister, dismayed she says, “That’s what he loves?” “Why would he listen to this?,” she continues: “It’s so morbid. Everything about it is dead and buried.” She fancies herself as more realistic than her brother and repudiates his white guilt: “My brother feels guilty for being a rich boy. That’s why his heroes are always poor or black. I told him, it’s not like you’re helping anyone by listening to music. No one cares if you like black people.” “Liking black people” is Leonie’s critique of white liberalism, wherein guilt is the primary mode of connection, thus fetishizing the black experience. Her position, however, reiterates erasure: “no one cares.” Helping people happens through charities or donations or galas, not by listening to music. What both attitudes miss is that one cannot listen to music without acknowledging experience — especially one’s own. Put another way by critic Robert O’Meally, one does not listen to this music as if it is background music.
Kunzru then explores exactly what Leonie refuses — “the dead and the buried” — with an ode to the many unknown, unheralded blues musicians who turned their experience into lyric. As Kunzru demonstrates in the novel, the echoes of Charlie Shaw’s lyrics reverberate through history, into the present. Regardless of a willful refusal to know him and his experience, his song is omnipresent and will haunt us until we no longer disregard its existence, thus reminiscent of what Seth observes about Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radio, who “believed that sound waves never completely die away, that they persist, fainter and fainter, masked by the day-to-day noise of the world.”
The white characters in this novel deny their own personal catastrophes, seemingly unaware that the sounds of such events “persist, fainter and fainter”; instead, they do what legions of Americans have been doing for centuries, which is turn to black Americans for catharsis while simultaneously denying their humanity. As one of the unnamed black women expresses later in the novel, “we’re fascinating to you, long as we’re safely dead.” It should come as no surprise, then, that white Americans can in the same month “celebrate” Coretta Scott King as an icon and then refuse to hear her historical testimony about an Attorney General nominee. The novel contains similar examples — examples of what happens to human beings, in the name of protecting the illusion of whiteness. Tate explains this phenomenon In Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture:
Mom once wrote a poem of the same name [Everything but the Burden] to decry the long-standing, ongoing, and unarrested theft of African American cultural properties by thieving, flavorless whitefolk. A jeremiad against the ways of Our music, Our fashion, Our hairstyles, Our dances, Our anatomical traits, Our bodies, Our Soul continue to be considered ever ripe for the plucking and the biting by the same crafty devils who brought you the African slave trade and the Middle Passage. What has always struck Black observers of this phenomenon isn’t just the irony of white America fiending for Blackness when it once debated whether Africans even had souls. It’s also the way They have always tried to erase the Black presence from whatever Black thing They took a shine to: jazz, blues, rock and roll, doo-wop, swingdancing, cornrowing, antidisimanation politics, attacking Dead Men, you name it.
As Seth and Carter take Seth’s recording of the man humming a blues song in Washington Square Park and manipulate it to sound older and more “authentic,” Carter commands Seth to “Make it dirty. Drown it in hiss.” “I want it to sound,” he says, “like a record that’s been sitting under someone’s porch for fifty years.” Carter’s directions underscore the novel’s core paradox: you can’t make anything dirty if you always insist on remaining innocent.