Ways of Being

Hilton Als' The Women

Like me, he was a Negress. Unlike me, he dressed the part. He wore black shoes with princess heels, and flesh coloured hose, through which dark hair sprouted, and a lemon yellow shift with grease spots on it, and a purple head scarf and bangles. He carried a strapless purse, out of which he removed, after little or no consultation with his mother, a compact and lipstick to dress his face too. As my mother looked at that boy, she brushed my eyes closed with the back of her hand.

- from Hilton Als, The Women 1996

I am black and that won't ever change, yet I've never really been forced to accept that and it's causing turmoil in my inner being... So much for shattered dreams, which, by the way are all white, perhaps because TV families are white.

- from Gary Fisher, Gary in Your Pocket 1996

Lying across yards of white modular furniture we weren't supposed to be on, we listened to The Ohio Players and talked about the maid. I was white and she was rich and her blackness had the shine of a Steinway in that pit of marshmallow squares. Hers was the house I ran to when I quit Hebrew School after a boy in my class punched me in the head. We ate peanut butter and bacon sandwiches and waited for my mother to kill me. She was the only girl that could beat me up, and sometimes she wanted to. We were aggressive girls left to our own devices in a plush wall-to-wall carpeted house where parents rarely roamed. Contrary to the polite policies that were handed down to me, the liberal McGovern politics of my parents, of a school district privileged enough to be generous, I knew in fact that she and I were quite different. She had an inch of hair on her head, which she claimed could be combed out to seven. Because she was black she was allowed to have such short hair and I envied her ability to look like a boy even while wearing one in an endless collection of flower-print dresses with apron ties.

My best friend had five siblings, three of whom I never met because they lived in some far away city with her mother. She and two of her sisters lived with their father, a series of stepmothers and a maid who seldom spoke to us, but probably she just didn't speak to me. In a whisper, while we sat on the top of her sister's bunk beds, she told me that her father once threw her second stepmother out the window. It's true, my friend said. And now she's in a mental hospital. Her third stepmother was the first person I knew who understood how to look famous. She had a cream-coloured Mercedes convertible with her initials detailed on the door. She wore high heels, belted pants suits and an afro just like Pam Grier's in Cleopatra Jones (1973). She travelled, cut demo-records and had the kind of relationship with her husband that excluded everyone else in the room, which was fine with us. She was a singer and we thought she sucked but she was also beautiful, which we wanted to be, so we flattered her into paying us attention.

The maid kept mostly to herself. She drank six-packs while she cleaned the house and I think her name was Mahalia, but that's probably because at the time there were a lot of commercials on TV for the Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and they had the same broad build. For a period of three years, whatever time I didn't spend by myself or at camp, I spent at that house, surrounded by some combination of these women, weighing myself, primping with black cosmetics and hair care products, looking for some resemblance between myself and any of the four Pointer Sisters, but ultimately and guiltily grateful there wasn't. Dressed like twins in flower print dresses and maroon tights with something that smelled like cocoa butter in our hair, we played at being girls and sisters.

As close as we were, I don't remember our parents ever meeting. My mother and father were never invited to the parties I had imagined spilling over that glamourous living room set, where someone would have been playing the baby grand piano while a sexy lady with a tall glass in her hand leaned over as she listened, like in the Billy Dee Williams Colt 45 malt liquor ad. If they met, it wasn't over coffee or dinner. Maybe at school, bumping into each other when they dropped off their date-less daughters at the eighth grade Prom. But by not meeting, they preserved the sameness that their politics promoted. In not meeting my parents, her parents could avoid watching white people flex their progressiveness, playing out the pain of recognising an internalised 'averse' racism they couldn't quite shake.

Hilton Als' The Women (1996), a non-fiction novel of invented and skewed biography, courts and displays a hostility that ruptures the comfort I tried to find in a house that knew I was white, but let the fact slide. (Or so I imagined, inflating the effect my presence had.) As a white woman who has often thought of herself as a boy, but never as black, I am Als' opposite in as much as we meet in our avoidance. We refract each other's desire. We cancel each other out. Both our childhoods share a charged history of coveting. Me - my brother's Fibreglass car bed; my brother's friends. He - his sister's clothes; his mother's husband. We shared the same desire to circumvent our own bodies because we thought they were blocking our way to some better choice. The thin line between self-hatred and a multi-layered identification is skirted by Als, who understands that language has left gender in a complicated state of flux. The Women, in large part an exercise in autobiography, shadows the panic of jockeying for position and the way difference interrupts that fragile illusion of order.

Look closely at the jacket photograph of Als' book and you will notice the absence of the author, the last remnant of that circumvention. You will notice this when the urge to see him, through the photographs he creates with his language, leads you to the back or the flap where a picture of the author would normally be reproduced. In the space reserved for him you will see the same image as on the cover, that of an anonymous young woman being lifted into the air by a young man. This young couple, nobodies from some other time in which the author probably would have loved to live and sometimes writes as if he did, showcase a slender moment of grace, an illusion of unity that is the antithesis of every relationship the author traces. Als is there and he isn't. He has perfected the trick of an imposing invisibility. That he has gone missing is both an act of aggression and the main trope of his book.

Als is in his mother's closet, putting on her pantyhose to wear underneath his clothes. Probably he enjoys the feel of the material and the sound. The sound which only he can hear, of grasshoppers rubbing their wings together when he walks. I hated stockings and my earliest memory of them is of not being able to pull them up by myself. To me, stockings were suffocation and a poor substitute for trousers, the first in many bad deals. Als and a million boys tried on dresses as if they were wrapping paper. Unlike the 'Auntie Man' he saw as a child, spied between the fingers of his mother's censorious caress, Als' self-proclaimed identity as a Negress does not necessitate that bouquet of garments. Just as his blackness doesn't signify his Negressity, his mode of dress does not immediately announce the cacophony of female voices he carries around with him. In the modern gender studies of Judith Butler, D.A. Miller, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, et al., there are many possibilities, some visually identifiable, some only recognisable once spoken. So when Als, who wears pants, refers to himself as a 'Negress', we understand that he means he embodies not so much the body as what that body has borne, has wanted, has been denied. This iconic identification is the product, the measurement, of his proximity to her disenfranchisement. A boy surrounded by women that looked nothing like those in George Cukor's film The Women (1939), but could be just as cruel and amusing. And just as fictionalised.

The women of Als' title would have fitted smartly into Cukor's film had they all met while touching up their make-up in the same ladies' room. Had they been white, they too might have worn beaded Adrian gowns, might have participated in wonderfully scripted clichés of impassioned womanhood. When I watched The Women I soon saw that l wasn't one. Als, apparently had the opposite response. Like George Cukor, he is a classic woman's director. He directs his mother Marie, a West Indian immigrant ever in the process of dying; Louisa Little, a rewritten version of Malcolm X's mad mother; Dorothy Dean, the brilliantly acerbic and wasted mother of a coterie of gay Harvard men, and finally, his mentor, Harlem Renaissance den mother Owen Dodson, another man who learned his shape from the shape of culture's design of women. All deceased, all melodramatic, all black and all arranged in such a way that the author is able to cobble together an introverted and lyrical self-portrait. With a remarkable talent for jumping his point of empathy from body to body, Als revisits Dean's as if it might have been his own if he had in fact been physiologically female. Like Sedgwick, who has written extensively about being a gay male identified as a heterosexual woman, Als is able to slip into Dean's pathos: self-loathing as a result of an attraction to (i.e. identification with) gay white men. Dean's desire de-sexualised her, made her a fag hag, a spectator at what should have been her own sport. In detailing a circle of self-hatred that took place between a black woman, gay men and Jews, Als exposes a whirl of unbearable wishes to cross over and away. Playing to Dean, through Dean, Als charts his own transition and himself becomes a kind of hag, an amusing, bright and cutting soul who fans beauty without ever touching it.

The divide between male and female is great in the small world Als renders. The men he encounters are like translucent fairies that pop in and out. Like the beautiful boys of an 80s Interview magazine, they are admired but get very little play. Handsome fathers have mistresses, whole other families. A handyman fucks a boy into his woman. A trick for Dorothy Dean. Masculinity, in the Als home, was a spectre to avoid, an irresistable bad luck charm that was just a transient tease. It is no great surprise then, that when Als' mother Marie tried to vanish through illness, her son sought ways to 'disappear' or re-order his gender to meet hers. Femininity, or more specifically the variation of Black femininity which Als refers to as 'Negressity', is a terrain mapped out by the expectations of men and children and of women's dependence on those expectations. 'Negress', that 'most hated of English colonial words', was the term his mother chose for herself, enjoying its ability to 'manipulate the guilt and embarrassment of white and Black Americans alike...' Als' definition of the word fluctuates, but the Negress seems to posit herself against the prevailing impossibilities with an almost audacious belief in a good outcome. The Negress is a woman so charitable, so much the martyr that she almost suffocates those around her. She is 'a romantic wedded to despair ... subject to depression, a symbol of America's by now forgotten strain of Puritanical selflessness, a good neighbour, polite, a statistic.' Almost always defined by her lack of partner, she is 'generally coloured', has little money, little to no agency and enough children to make her noticeable. A hard act to follow.

The Negress, Als asserts, is a conglomeration of black fiction and poetry, TV news and daily life. However, it is black women's literature that he sees as a kind of slow-baking propaganda oven, that seems to be the most potentially empowering. Rather than focusing on the many negative images of the black male, most famously that of 'Mister' in Stephen Spielberg's 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker's The Colour Purple, Als' interest is in that character's counterpart, the Negress, himself. The black women writers, Walker and Toni Morrison in particular, 'make the Negress bigger than she is in order to mythologise her... They keep the lid shut on the Negress' curly Medusa head. As a myth she does not have to be complex or subtle.'

When I was a teenager I immersed myself in the stories of Morrison, Walker and Maya Angelou. Touring through the books, which I found on my mother's shelves between The Hite Report, The Female Eunuch, and The Golden Notebook, I discovered a sexuality that was all maple syrup and cat purrs. With the exception of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, which offered up a harmony to the Negress' melody, I found none of that exquisite and faraway melancholia in the books that I read about and by white women. In the opera of my book-filled adolescence, Morrison's little girl who admires The Bluest Eye ran away with Esther, the Jewess in the Jar. They lived happily ever after with the dish and the spoon. They avoided analysis at any cost. They rarely socialised. It was in these books that I cast my friend's real mother. The woman with children that didn't get to live in the big house with a pool. It still strikes me as strange that I never saw a picture of her - perhaps my friend was afraid that I might recognise her; that her mother might be the difference between us. Maybe she just hated her. Maybe she made her up. As Als suggested, she was probably a good neighbour, but for the most part, she was just invisible.

Perhaps it is our collective fantasy of black women gleaned from those works of fiction that provoked the high levels of intolerance exhibited in The Women. With his condemnation of this uncanon's heterosexual attachment to the mating (or not) of unhappy women to their demon black dream date, Als tries to remodel his mother. He quotes a disdainful passage from Malcolm X's autobiography about his mother - 'Her father was white. She had straight black hair, and her accent did not sound like a Negro's' - and ghostwrites an autobiography she can inhabit. Als imagines that in the 'famous photograph of Malcolm in his house with a gun, looking out the window', the slain leader is looking for his mother, and in that reading, Malcolm turns from suppressed hero to oppressive son.

When I write of Als as the picture on the cover of his book, I do so conscious of his reading some three years ago of the portrait of Truman Capote on the back of Other Voices, Other Rooms. In an essay, 'The Women', published in Grand Street, Als locates Capote's slow leak of femininity. There, the lisping Southern belle preens like John Garfield, decked out in a kind of black and white drag that calls for subtitles and subterfuge. The undercurrent, Als envisions, is that Capote, in asserting his transformed gender, was out as a woman writer while women authors of the time, 'Jean Stafford, Carson McCullers, Marguerite Young... buttoned themselves up on dust jackets in the image or the male American author...' Unlike the young lions of the time, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, etc., Capote abandoned the appearance of male privilege to chase the tale of his own femininity. Thus, the young man was a woman by forfeit, as women drag by him dressed in proper authorial poses. And this still happens. Or more aptly, this - the rupture in gender - is still felt, felt very much by the author who does not look like a girl, but feels very much like the myths he dreamed at his mother's side.

Issue 32

First published in Issue 32

Jan - Feb 1997

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