Lately what concerns the Steiny Road Poet is racism in America.
For Steiny, two streams of thought and action have coalesced around this belief system that posits one race is superior to another and bad
behavior in the form of discrimination and prejudice is acceptable. The obvious source of racism in America at this time centers on the political actions and rhetoric of Donald
Not obvious and clearly obscure to most Americans are certain writings of Gertrude Stein, but this is what fans Steiny’s fire on
this subject matter.
THE DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL
CANDIDATES ON TRUMP
Steiny finds it interesting that the two Democratic candidates for president of the United States would not say forthrightly that
Donald Trump is a racist. In the Democratic debate held
March 9, 2016 in Miami, Hilary Clinton was asked: “Secretary
Clinton, is Donald Trump a racist?” She answered:
“I was the first one to call him out. I called him out when he was calling Mexicans rapists, when he was engaging in rhetoric that I
found deeply offensive. I said basta, and I am pleased that others are also joining in making clear that his rhetoric, his
demagoguery, his trafficking in prejudice and paranoia has no place in our political system. Especially from somebody running
for president who couldn’t decide whether or not to disavow the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke.”
Bernie Sanders said:
“I think the American people are never going to elect a president who insults Mexicans, who insults Muslims, who insults women,
who insults African Americans and let us not forget Trump was in the middle of the so-called Birther movement trying to
delegitimize the president of the United States of America. You know I find it very interesting. My dad was born in Poland and
no one has asked me for my birth certificate. Maybe it has something to do with the color of my skin.”
TRUMP’S ACTIONS ARE BIGGER THAN ANY LABEL
Perhaps, Americans, disliking the label racist but concerned with how to describe the actions and activities around Donald
Trump, might go with bigot—one who is strongly intolerant (bordering on extreme) of any creed, belief, or opinion
(especially as it pertains to religion) that differs from one’s own—or, as Clinton suggests, demagogue—a leader who obtains
power by means of impassioned appeals to the emotions and prejudices of the populace. Still, what is happening when the
former reality TV showman speaks is that when people of color protest against Trump, these protestors are increasingly being
physically accosted by Trump supporters and Trump standing at his microphone says such things directed toward these
protesters as “Get ‘em out!” and “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
IF STEIN WAS EXPUNGING NOUNS, WHY THE N-WORD?
As a woman, Jew, and lesbian (however, closeted and committed to one woman her entire life), Gertrude Stein weighs in heavily
on the prejudice meter versus Donald Trump—a Protestant, white man married to (one at a time) three immigrant women.
Stein was more likely to have been a target for racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia. But hold on, what
does a long-time reader (like Steiny) of the People’s Modernist—as Stein was called because of her use of simple
Anglo-Saxon words—think about her text using the N-word (yes, it rhymes with trigger):
It was a time when in the acres in late there was a wheel that shot a burst of land and needless are niggers and a
sample sample set of old eaten butterflies with spoons, all of it to be are fled and measure make it, make it, yet all the one
in that we see where shall not it set with a left and more so, yes there add when the longer not it shall the best in the
way when all be with when shall not for there with see and chest how for another excellent and excellent and easy easy
excellent and easy express e c, all to be nice all to be no so. All to be no so no so. All to be not a white old chat churner. Not to be any example of an edible apple in. [from “Dinner”
in Tender Buttons]
The first question Steiny asked herself is what does Gertrude Stein have to say about nouns, which are the names of things? In
her essay “Poetry and Grammar” from Lectures in America by Gertrude Stein, the experimental poet discusses how she sought
to rid nouns from her writing because this part of speech had become so static through over use that words like rose didn’t
mean anything. While she understood that nouns were important in writing poetry, she felt she had already achieved a reduction of nouns in her prose work The Making of Americans.
“So then in Tender Buttons I was making poetry but and it seriously troubled me, dimly I knew that nouns made poetry but
in prose I no longer needed the help of nouns and in poetry did I the help of nouns. Was there not a way of naming thing that
would not invent names, but mean names without naming
them.” (“Poetry and Grammar” from Lectures in America by Gertrude Stein, Beacon Press, Boston: 1957, p. 236)
Stein goes on to say how impressed she was that Shakespeare was able to create a forest (ostensibly the Forest of Arden in As You Like It) “without mentioning the things that make a forest.”
Thus, in Tender Buttons, Stein made it her goal to point to things without naming them. Therefore, the use of the N-word is troubling.
HOW COMMON WAS THE N-WORD IN STEIN’S TIME!
Next Steiny asked herself if it is possible to say that in Stein’s time the N-word was not so derogatory? Joan Retallack, in her
introduction to Gertrude Stein: Selections (2008), conjectured:
“In the early 1900s, Stein and others of her era were using
‘negro’ and ‘nigger’ seemingly interchangeably for a range of effects, from epithet to exoticism. ‘Primitive’ African forms and
things ‘negro’ were in fashion in entre-guerres Paris. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct what the now taboo ‘n’ word
sounded like to Stein’s ear or to other white modernists who used it freely in romantic-exotic conjunctions or alliterative phrases—The Nigger of Narcissus (Joseph Conrad ),
‘singing nigger’ (Carl Sandburg ), Nigger Heaven (Carl Van Vechten ), ‘Solange…a nigger tree and with a nigger name’
(Wallace Stevens [from “The News and the Weather” 1941]). Were these comparatively innocent gestures of lyrical ‘color’ that
simply fell victim to retrospective misfortune? [For historical breadth, Steiny added dates of publication.]
To Retallack’s list of American work using the N-word, Steiny adds a novel that Stein seems to point to in Tender Buttons and
which Steiny has documented in her discussion of “Sugar.”: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom’s Cabin
was published in 1852 and the N-word appears over 100 times.
On the other hand in Tender Buttons, Stein more heavily seems to point to Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Steiny began
documenting this discovery with her discussion of “Breakfast.”, which is also a subpoem of Tender Buttons. Published in 1851, Moby Dick deals with a broad spectrum of diverse ethnicities,
including American and African Black men. While the word negro appears 24 times, the N-word never appears.
Does this list of other well known writers who used the N-word give Stein a pass? This question possibly gives way to another
question—should Stein be held to different standards than other writers? But maybe the real question is what was Stein’s intention since she only used it once in Tender Buttons (published in 1914). However, she used the objectionable word
in other works including Melanctha (published in 1909), her novella about a middle class black woman, and in her poem “An Elucidation” (written in 1923).
WHAT YOU CANNOT HEAR CAN’T HURT YOU?
Turning back to today’s volatile scene, Steiny thinks it would be appropriate to talk about dog-whistle politics, messaging that
uses coded language that refers to something pejorative like racism. For example and according to Wikipedia, “states’ rights”
is code for institutionalized segregation and racism. During an anonymous interview in 1981, former Republican Party strategist
Lee Atwater discussed the GOP’s Southern strategy and said:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968,
you can't say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're
getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic
things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not
saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one
way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than
even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”
And then there is Donald Trump’s Birther movement, which he tried to use to discredit the sitting United States president
Barack Obama by saying Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii and therefore was not a legitimate president. U.S. presidents must
be born in the United States. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation in August 2015, said
Trump’s questioning of the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate was an alternative to using the N-word.
Maybe, like humans not being able to hear the sound of a dog whistle not everyone understands the Birther accusations as
racist. But what else could it be except a suspicious attitude that elicits such a question as “You aren’t from around here, are you?”
Gertrude Stein was a master at encoded language and behind it was her ambition to make a name for
herself as an innovator and genius. In order to gain recognition, Stein knew as a woman she had to become one of the bad boys who set trends and led
the way. She explored the writings of Otto Weininger, a miscreant popular when Stein was writing The Making of Americans between 1903 to 1911.
Weininger’s draw was his discussion on who could become a genius. He believed men were superior to women and that Jews were liars and cowards. He was a racist and
misogynist of the first order and in a very convoluted way, Stein aligned herself with his thinking until it no longer suited her philosophic needs.
In the lead up to World War II, Stein got herself in trouble when she said (facetiously) that Hitler should be awarded a Nobel
Prize and then later from occupied France when she approached her American publisher (by mail) with an offer to translate the
speeches of MarÃ©chal PÃ©tain, the head of the Nazi-sponsored Vichy Government. Her protector during WWII was Bernard
FaÃ¿, the French intellectual who had translated into French parts of her long novel The Making of Americans, coached Stein
on how to make a successful lecture tour in America, and then during the Nazi occupation of France became head of the BibliothÃ¨que Nationale where he conducted an anti-Masonic
purge that led to French Jews being deported to Nazi extermination camps. Stein remained life long friends with FaÃ¿
and it was her money after her death and abetted by Stein’s wife Alice Toklas that financed his escape from prison (he was convicted as a Nazi collaborator) to Switzerland.
Gertrude Stein’s major literary goal was to renew the English language. One might think of that goal as her political platform
promising the general populace that writing would be easier to read and more meaningful. While Steiny knows that Gertrude
Stein occasionally made bad choices for herself (like staying in France during WWII), Steiny remains troubled about Stein’s use
of the N-word and about some of the men who influenced her. However, everything considered, Stein’s contribution to
Western civilization is substantial and rewarding to those who study her works.
As the lead Republican candidate for president of the United States, Donald Trump has promised such things as: building a
wall between Mexico and the U.S. that will be paid for by Mexico, getting rid of Obamacare, defunding Planned Parenthood,
ensuring Syrian refugees are never allowed to the enter the U.S., bringing back waterboarding, ridding the country of gun-free
zones at military bases and schools, allowing concealed-carry permits (for guns) in all 50 states, deporting immigrants living
illegally in the U.S., and saying things that are politically incorrect because the country does not have time to waste with
political correctness. The Steiny Road Poet thinks that Trump, who so far hasn’t said the N-word, augurs the end of Western
civilization as he incites his out-of-control constituency to make known their racism.