Feminist(ing) Black and Yellow Masculinities in Song of Solomon and Tripmaster Monkey

Academia

Maxine Hong Kingston and Toni Morrison are two of America’s most famous women writers of color, whose books have usually focused on the experiences of Asian and Black American women using unconventional narrative devices, such as the blending of stories and myth with memoir, or employing a non-linear narrative. The intersection between race and gender is apparent in many, if not most, of Kingston and Morrison’s work. Why, then, have they decided to make the protagonists of their novels Song of Solomon (by Morrison) and Tripmaster Monkey (by Kingston) men? And why have Kingston and Morrison, in these two novels, decided to create, out of each novel, the bildungsroman— one of the most typical forms of narrative in Western literature? Indeed, have they lost their literary radicalness?

A closer look shows us the intentionality of the male protagonist in both novels as a critique, and later, redemption, of Black and Yellow masculinities. These critiques are presented in forms that are historical, cultural, feminist, and mythological, and add an often-missed but crucial lens to the racial narratives coming out of both settings of the novel (both are set in the 60s, where American counterculture, the Civil Rights movement and Black Power movement, and the protest against the Vietnam War were in full swing.) Using Wittman Ah Sing and Milkman Dead as examples of typical masculinity, Kingston and Morrison weave a story that begins to reveal the biases and privileges that men of color hold as compared to women of color, and at the same time, offer hope by profoundly changing these protagonists.

Milkman and Wittman are hardly likable characters. Wittman, a fifth-generation Chinese American graduate from Berkeley, is a typical “beat” poet hipster. He is extremely critical and hyperaware of racism, but is not totally knowledgable on how to counter these forces— nor does he see his own biases towards “F.O.Bs” (Fresh Off the Boats) and Asian women. He looks down upon a “Chinese dude from China”, giving him “a direct stink-eye”, calling them “so uncool.” (Kingston, 5). Intersected with gender, his biases take on an extra dose of misogyny— while on a bus ride to Oakland, a Chinese American girl sits next to Wittman, a fact which he takes suspiciously and begrudgingly. He is disdainful of her, describing her as“…Flat shoes, flat chest, flat hair, flat face, flat color”. He is also disdainful of the Chinese food she brings with her on the bus, describing her smell as “hot restaurant air that blows into alleys…mama food and grandma food” (Kingston, 74). Wittman’s disgust towards the girl’s smell as “mama” and “grandma” food links Wittman’s disgust of the “F.O.B” to something inherently feminine. Wittman’s dislike of the new(er) Chinese immigrant, someone who is definitely not “American”, becomes connected to a feminized, maternal vision of China, ironically revealing Wittman’s own Orientalist views.

Milkman, on the other hand, seems is very detached and bored by the racism black people experience and the growing public discontentment from it. Like Wittman, he suffers from a particular brand of misogyny, treating the women in his life poorly, especially Hagar, the cousin he has a relationship with— Milkman thinks of her as “his private honey pot, not a real or legitimate girl friend”, and reveals that he is “getting tired of her” (Morrison, 91). Both characters are floaters; unable to take responsibility. Milkman is heavily reliant on the women in his family, but has never done anything in return. In the beginning of Tripmaster, Wittman doesn’t even identify a family. Both men also are perpetually stuck in a self-imposed sense of isolation. Wittman feels awkward at a party, literally waiting for people to be racist and emasculate him. Morrison and Kingston implicitly assign the character flaws of their main protagonists to masculinity. For Wittman, Kingston reveals his “fragile masculinity”— his prevailing fear of being emasculated, and the lengths he goes to showcase his masculinity.

Throughout Tripmaster Monkey, Kingston also employs an interesting narrative form. Tripmaster Monkey is not consistently narrated— while mostly narrated in the voice of a omniscient, third-person narrator that is mainly narrating Wittman’s consciousness, sometimes the narrative plainly shows the hand of another, distinct narrator, one who speaks for herself. Here, the narrator seems to be defined as the voice of Kingston— a distinctly feminine voice, because she gently chides Wittman and takes moments to poke fun at his ego. For example, in many of the chapter endings, the narrator breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader in the style of a cliffhanger— in Chapter 1, Trippers and Askers, the narrator ends the chapter with “Our Wittman is going to work on his play for the rest of the night. If you want to see whether he will get that play up, and how a poor monkey makes a living so he can afford to spend the weekday afternoon drinking coffee and hanging out, go on to the next chapter” (Kingston, 65). Here, Kingston’s voice comes through the narrator, good-naturedly making fun of Wittman’s masculine, active outburst at Nanci by pointing out the aimlessness of his life—as the narrator points out, his outbursts are somewhat useless as they are not yet directed towards any active effort to reconfigure his life.

Other moments in which the narrative deviates is when Kingston inserts sudden, jarring observations from other characters, notably Tana, Wittman’s girlfriend and later wife. Tana’s observations are much less subtle than Kingston’s own voice when critiquing Wittman’s fragile masculinity. After the first time Wittman and Tana make love, the narration suddenly becomes Tana’s, as she contemplates complimenting Wittman about his “nice and soft” penis, but she stops herself, noting that “…he was such a worrier over masculinity, he’d take it wrong…. Wittman was not one you could praise for his softness” (Kingston, 157). 

Revealing Wittman’s fragile masculinity is, in part, another critique on one of Kingston’s most vocal critics: Frank Chin. Chin, one of Kingston’s contemporaries, heavily criticized her for playing into “fake” understandings of the Asian American experience, naming her work as playing into white imagined stereotypes of Asians, and accusing her of stripping her male Asian American characters of their masculinity.

But, according to Daniel Y. Kim, Chin himself suffered from a particular brand of misogyny, incredibly apparent in a quote by Chin in a 1972 article entitled Racist Love:

“The white stereotype of the Asian is unique in that it is the only racial stereotype completely devoid of manhood. Our nobility is that of an efficient housewife. At our worst we are contemptible because we are womanly, effeminate, devoid of all the traditionally masculine qualities of originality, daring, physical courage, creativity. We’re neither straight talkin’ or [sic] straight shootin” (Kim, 129).

Here, we see Chin’s complicated relationship with his understanding of Yellow masculinities— he desires it, but in doing so, he reverts to misogynistic understandings of womanhood, labeling womanhood as lacking apparently “masculine” qualities like creativity, while strictly maintaining a narrow and urgent view of Asian American masculinity, choosing to distill it down to a singular, “authentic” narrative— “For Chin inherits… an aesthetic ideology that conceives of writing not only as a radically redemptive cultural practice, but also as one that enables resistance to racism’s most emasculating effects” (Kim, 206).

Throughout Tripmaster Monkey, Kingston picks up on Chin’s critiques of her, but also flips the script by finely studying Chin’s work, then critiquing the gendered aspects of race that Chin ignores. Taking Kim’s analysis of Chin’s work as usually:

“…focus[ing] on the plight of an Asian American male protagonist— usually a frustrated artist— who is struggling against a social order that attempts to box him into an identity that he experiences as radically inauthentic and emasculating. In response, he seeks an ideal of racialized manhood with which to identify, an ideal that usually assumes a paternal shape; this paternal longing fixes upon certain white and black male figures and is frustrated; eventually, and often tenuously, the protagonist comes to recognize the racial inappropriateness of the paternal models he has chosen and seems to find instead a yellow father figure” (Kim, 160).

Through this reading of Chin’s work, we see how Kingston has developed the character of Wittman as an caricature of Chin. Wittman is a poet, frustrated by the rampant racial stereotypes that attempt to box him in and emasculate him, reveals his utterly sensitive masculine ego. He looks up to male artists and writers of other races that he believes embodies their racial “masculinity”, all the while trying to create an Asian American masculinity via these other forms. Looking to quintessential white American authors, we can see his struggle between respecting their work, but questioning their (potentially) racist views of Asian Americans. An example of this is his respect for Jack Kerouac, “King of the Beats” who, in Wittman recounting his novel, The Town and the City, is heavily affected by Kerouac’s description of the Chinese as “twinkling” and “little”— “Shit. The “twinkling little Chinese” must be none other than himself” (Kingston, 69). Wittman struggles between using examples of other racial masculinities as inspiration for his own “authentic” expression of masculinity and the contradictions these role models present for his ability to express his authentic “Americanness” rather than the Western imagined “Asianness” that he fears others will define him by.

Similarly, his first date with Nanci goes horribly when he gets offended by her response that his poetry sounds “Black…. like Leroi Jones” (Tripmaster, 32). According to  Kim, in his literary queer analysis of Chin’s creation of an Asian masculinity, Nanci Lee would be absolutely correct in her description of Wittman’s poem. Kim identifies Chin’s work as drawing from Black nationalist masculinity as a heavy source of inspiration: “The gendered and sexual rhetoric that Chin relies on to describe the psychological damage that white racism threatens to inflict on Asian American men, a rhetoric that has been inherited most distinctly from black nationalism”  (Kim, 126).  But, because of Chin (and Wittman’s) occupation with the “authentic”, this allegation of taking inspiration from Black masculinity would only offend. This is illustrated in Wittman’s reaction to Nanci’s description— “He slammed his hand— a fist with a poem in it— down on the desk— fistful of poem. He spit in his genuine brass China Man spittoon, and jumped up on top of the desk” (Kingston, 33). Wittman’s focus on the “genuine” in his anger reflects his desire of being a “genuine” Asian American artist, but somehow his actions seem completely performative. When Nanci says, “Please don’t freak out” (Kingston 33), she is acknowledging the anxiety her comment caused— by comparing Wittman to a Black poet, she is destabilizing Wittman’s understanding of his “authentic” identity as an Asian American. This becomes one of the central questions Kingston asks in Tripmaster Monkey— what exactly, constitutes an authentic Asian American experience? Is it as universal as Wittman/Chin would like it to be?

The critiques Morrison also poses about masculinity in Song of Solomon also are based in the construction of history and the Black experience— but instead of asking “is there an authentic Black experience”, she grapples with the gendered ways in which Black responsibility, love, and family manifest itself, and does this by comparing and contrasting the hyper-masculine, shortsighted and violent renderings of these themes as compared to the wiser, responsible, and loving feminine. The hyper-masculine is manifested in two characters: Macon Dead, Milkman’s father, and Guitar. Macon Dead’s poisonous masculinity causes “…each member of his family awkward with fear. His hatred of his wife glittered and sparked in every word he spoke to her. The disappointment he felt in his daughters sifted down on them like ash” (Morrison, 10). Macon, a harsh and unkind landlord, is also consumed by profit and totally unmoved by the poverty his Black tenants suffer: “Can [the babies] make it in the street, Mrs. Bains? That’s where they gonna be if you don’t figure out some way to get me my money” (Morrison, 21). Macon’s gracelessness is what he passes on to Milkman as well, teaching him that the “one important thing” he would ever need to know: “Own things. And let the things you own own other things. Then you’ll own yourself and other people too.” (Morrison, 55). Macon’s theory sounds disconcertingly similar to the capitalistic ideology behind slavery, to “own other people”. Although Milkman feels a distinct disconnect to his father, we still see how he is affected strongly by Macon’s mantra, as he decides to hunt down Pilate’s alleged “gold”, an inheritance he somehow thinks he deserves.

Macon’s motto of owning people is also present in the way he treats his daughters. Magdalene recounts a childhood memory of her and Corinthians: “We were all dressed up…. There were other children there. Barefoot, naked to the waist, dirty. But we stood apart… in white stockings, ribbons, and gloves….[Macon] took us there so they could see us, envy us, envy him” (Morrison, 216). In this memory Magdalene and Corinthians are nothing but material objects for Macon to show off.

Guitar also represents a hyper-masculinity that is also steeped in violence, but while Macon is decidedly anti-political, Guitar’s violence manifests itself in strictly in a political sense— but what he fails to see is the similar logic employed in the actions of the Seven Days as was implemented in racist eugenic practices, killing white people for the sake of “…Numbers. Balance. Ratio”, and calling whites “…Unnatural…. The disease they have is in their blood, in the structure of their chromosomes” (Morrison, 156-157).  Guitar’s ideas of masculinity stem from a similar place that Wittman/Chin’s does— Guitar states that “Everybody wants the life of a black man. Everybody. White men want us dead or quiet— which is the same thing as dead. White women, same thing. They want us… Tame, except in bed… and black women, they want your whole self. Love, they call it, and understanding… What they mean is, Don’t love anything on earth except me…. You can’t even die unless it’s about them. What good is a man’s life if he can’t even choose what to die for?” (Morrison, 222-223). Guitar’s statement showcases his attachment of freedom to the lack of responsibility and “untamed” power that is loud, not “quiet”, to his hopes for Black masculinity. Similar to Wittman/Chin, he feels restricted, and therefore, emasculated, by everyone around him.

He also expresses similar patriarchal and misogynistic notions of Black women, even as he claims to love Black people— when Milkman asks Guitar “Why worry about the colored women at all?”, Guitar answers: “Because she’s mine” (Morrison, 223). Guitar’s masculinity, like Macon, makes him want to own people. Here, Morrison creates a parallel between Guitar and Macon— even though Macon has no love for anybody and Guitar claims he loves Black people, ultimately, both men only want to “own” people like objects, especially Black women.

Morrison presents the antithesis of this selfish masculinity in the form of Pilate. Pilate is Milkman’s aunt and Macon’s sister, a character that Macon tried to keep away from Milkman, but failed to. Milkman, even in his young age, felt drawn to Pilate and recognized her inherent power. A mystical character, feminine, strong, and steeped in her history, Pilate is the older wise woman, responsible and protective. She rejects any sort of material wants and holds herself responsible for her own actions and for those around her. While Macon, Milkman and Guitar assume she has taken the gold from the dead man Macon had killed when in the cave they were spending the night in, Pilate had kept the bones of the dead man instead because, as she remembers her father’s ghost telling her, “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body” (Morrison, 208).

Pilate’s role in the novel is not only felt in her physical moments. Her spirit is felt in physical places, too. A concept that bell hooks coined, the home place, illustrates the way in which Pilate imbues history in the places she cares for. In her house on Darling Street, Pilate creates a home place that, although lacks material comforts like running water, electricity, or gas, is a nourishing place of resistance that “…affirmed… beings… blackness… [and ] love” (hooks, 387). The first time that Milkman visits this home, although he is young, he can already sense this home place that Pilate has created— “…it was the first time in his life that he remembered being completely happy…. He was sitting comfortably in the notorious wine house; he was surrounded by women who seemed to enjoy him and who laughed out loud. And he was in love” (Morrison, 47).

The house on Darling Street was not the only place where home place was created by Pilate for Milkman. Milkman also experiences this moment of joy in Shalimar, after hunting for bobcat with Omar and the other men of Shalimar. Milkman suddenly experiences this same joy— “…he found himself exhilarated by simply walking the earth. Walking it like he belonged on it” (Morrison, 281). The longer he stays in Shalimar, the more he cultivates this joy and sense of purpose from the history that Pilate had left for him to search out.

Pilate’s strength, her acceptance and love for everyone, even for Milkman (who was partially responsible for Hagar’s death) and her sense of responsibility are represented in the theory of Womanism. Womanism, borne out of Black women’s critiques of traditional white feminism, aims to represent and critique misogyny while working towards the betterment of Black lives as a cohesive whole. Understanding the intersectional aspects of Black women’s oppression (through gender and race), Womanism attempts to both critique and “empower the black man” (Ogunyemi, 236). Ultimately, because Pilate recognizes the affects systemic racism has had on not only the women of the Black community, but also the men— she gives Milkman the chance to redeem himself. Pilate is the main factor of Milkman’s empowerment: Milkman’s journey is mapped out by Pilate, and as his journey progresses, we see him shed, one by one, each layer of the signs of toxic masculinity imparted upon him by Macon— his expensive shoes get ruined, his gold watch scratched, his notion that people only do favors for something in return— something he learns on the way when he accidentally offends a man who offered him a free lift to Danville (Morrison, 252).

As both novels progress, we see Wittman and Milkman learn and grow through discovering their histories and ancestry. Milkman does so through finding out about the story of Solomon, his ancestor— the slave who flew to Africa, and to freedom, but left his wife and children behind. Solomon’s run for freedom represents the double burden Black women suffered from both the hands of racism and the patriarchy, and Milkman’s discovery of his past allows him to see his faults— he acknowledges the pain he has caused his family, particularly Hagar, and begins to recognize that in being liberated, he must care for and take responsibility of those in his community. Indeed, this is how Pilate is able to “[fly]… without ever leaving the ground”. Her maternal love and care for others is what sets her free.

Similarly, Wittman explores traditional Chinese literature to come to a messy, but satisfying, resolution about his Asian Americanness. Kingston questions the fundamental nature of what it means to be authentically American. To be American, in fact, is to eschew this idea of national or cultural purity. More importantly, it is to  embrace the fact that multiculturalism, and sometimes, culture-clashing, is distinctly American, and to pursue that actively. Once Wittman allows his play to be formed and experimented with by his rag-tag team of friends, family, and acquaintances, and he lets go to allow room for improvisation, he is able to come to this realization. His play, heavily influenced by two of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, perhaps can only be viewed by some as “East meets West… Exotic… Sino-American theater” (Kingston, 307), but Wittman attempts to transcend these strict boundaries through “appropriation, parody, and play” (Shapiro, 6). By redeeming Wittman, Kingston provides a response for Chin’s critiques of her as “orientalist”— instead of fighting back, she invites Chin’s critiques and expands on them, showing the reader the boundlessness potential the mingling and mixing of culture could have, and the stability this might allow Wittman. Kingston therefore imagines a hopeful future, one where Wittman has the capacity to change: “Wittman changed— beeen!— into a pacifist” (Kingston, 340), an Asian (but more importantly,) American man who has decided to live his most authentic self, a self less violently insecure.

Ultimately, both Kingston and Morrison’s generosity towards their male protagonists embraces and embodies Womanism to its fullest. Kingston’s respect for her most vocal critic, her inclusion of his ideas, and her gentle playfulness imagines a future where Chin’s sharp critiques of Orientalism can co-mingle with her ideas of cultural hybridity. Morrison creates a narrative in which Milkman, even with his slew of mistakes, misogyny, and his hand in Hagar’s death, is given a chance to discover himself and learn from his mistakes. Redemption is a key theme for both of these characters, and it is, clearly, a feminist one.

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