[Milton-L] Milton and "the majesty of darkness" (was "Credited Wiki")

James Rovira jamesrovira at gmail.com
Sat Nov 4 13:27:38 EDT 2017


Much appreciation for John Leonard's post, which I think elevated the
conversation about Terrance Lindall's image above just statements of
offense. I don't think there was any specific obligation on anyone's part
to raise it beyond that level, of course -- we are not all obligated to
invest our time in any one thing in particular -- but I'm glad he did. I
would only add to it that Lindall self-presented that work as part of a
satire, and that satire necessary paints in very broad strokes or in
caricatures. I would also add that the association of darkness with bad or
evil and whiteness or light with good is a very common one that applies
even to Milton, but that Leonard's and others' posts add that it applies to
Milton -only with serious qualifications-.

We haven't yet grappled with the offensive elements of the artwork, which
were of course its use of racist visual stereotypes of African-Americans.
Margaret Thicksun's post is a good start, and I think as a reminder that
this bad/good black/white dichotomy is commonly applied to race as well, I
could refer to William Blake's "The Little Black Boy," which presents an
innocent character who has internalized this dichotomy ("And I am black /
but O, my soul is white"), accepts it uncritically, and in revealing his
unconscious acceptance of this dichotomy, horrifies Blake's not-so-innocent
readers. Lindall's own commentary makes reference to other such
associations of skin-color blackness with evil or Satan in literature.

So Lindall's visual statement has the potential to offend because it
presents a black Milton framed against a watermelon, which is a common and
very old stereotype for US blacks (see *Birth of a Nation* for a collection
of these). The opening statement about the picture immediately following it
describes a number of other visual elements that reflect similar
stereotypes. The depiction of stereotypes in itself, of course, is not
wrong or necessarily offensive: it's the context for that depiction that
matters. *Birth of a Nation* validates these stereotypes while Patti
Smith's "Rock and Roll N---" appropriates them to make a statement about
human oppression, one so powerful that I think she's the only white person
allowed to use the "n word" and remain above reproach (rights extended to
her guitarist Lenny Kaye as well).

What do we do with the racist imagery in the case of this image? It could
be a statement about Milton's place in western letters right now,
commenting on a perception of his subordinate status. It could juxtapose
Milton as a cultured African set in opposition against Satan as one who is
uncultured -- though both images have low stereotypes associated with them.
It could be intended to comment on the viewer by provoking a reaction, and
I think the latter comes closest to the artist's intent. It's satire, so if
you're offended, you don't get the joke, and if you're not, you do. This
impression is reinforced by the text beneath the image, "Horrifying Milton
Scholars Everywhere," and some of the commentary following, "This book will
probably be banned!", the exclamation point indicating perhaps an element
of hopefulness? Is the point here only to get a reaction?

I suspect Lindall is of the group that thinks PC and being offended are
themselves a bigger problem than racism, especially since his commentary --
and many thanks to him for providing it -- compares Satan's "mythical"
perception of Milton's God to the mythical perception of white oppression
of blacks in the US. I think this claim gets to the core of what is wrong
with this image and its presentation as well as with our reactions to it.

First, it's simply not true that racism and its effects do not persist into
the present in the US. I won't bother citing income, conviction, police
shooting, or crime statistics. They are out there. Go find them. But what
the persistence of racism, the ongoing effects of US slavery, followed by
Jim Crow laws, which were followed by a Civil Rights movement that has only
partially realized its goals all means is that no racist speech is made in
a void and without effect. Racist speech supports, enables, and extends
ways of thinking that we have seen for ourselves resulted in slavery, rape,
theft, lynchings, kidnappings, and, when applied to a different group in
Europe, a holocaust. Anyone who thinks the damage done by racist speech is
limited to hurt feelings is frankly ignorant. Furthermore, racist speech
has nothing to teach us. We've already seen its legacy. If we want to study
it, all that we need are archives and history books. There is nothing to be
learned from its continuation and nothing lost in its suppression. Am I
advocating "banning" Lindall's satire? Not at all -- he is welcome to find
any outlet he wants. But no one is obligated to validate this work or give
it a venue either.

At the same time, I would also like to suggest that by using the language
of "offense" we may be enabling misperceptions of the danger of racist
speech. Bad breath is offensive, but morally neutral. Flatulence is
offensive but morally neutral. The moral elements of these acts consists of
the responsibility of the guilty part to avoid creating discomfort in
others, but the objects themselves are morally neutral, especially if they
proceed from a medical condition. But racist speech is not morally neutral.
It perpetuates lies about other human beings, which by itself is wrong, but
more than that, it perpetuates lies that have been used to justify a
history of kidnapping, rape, theft, lynchings, etc. If we say we're
"offended" by it we extend the perception that racist speech is equivalent
to bad breath or flatulence and indicates only a lack of consideration on
the part of the speaker.

That's not the case: *racist speech is not offensive. It is evil*.

We don't need to respond to racist speech as if we are offended by it. We
have to resist it as if it was the destructive evil that it is.

Now I want to be clear that I don't mean to go this far in my critique of
Lindall, who does not consider himself a racist, and who seems to
acknowledge, at least historically, the plight of blacks in the US. I would
say only that he has some blind spots about how racism persists in the US,
and because of that context, of how racist speech continues to be much
worse than just offensive.

Jim R
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