Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1893
Forecasting a revolution of consciousness that would sweep through the United States, Charles Reich’s The Greening of America (1970) soared to best-seller status. Consciousness III, as Reich called it, promised a rediscovery of selfhood in which the preciousness of all human life would be affirmed. Within a few months, despite its claim that this “greening” was inevitable, Reich’s book had come and gone.
Thirty years later, Richard Rodriguez announced the “browning” of America. Although Brown’s immediate impact did not match The Greening of America, Rodriguez’s book is likely to have greater validity in the long run. It is doubtful that Rodriguez has identified “the last discovery of America,” as his book’s inflated subtitle claims, but he musters considerable evidence to support his thesis that brown—not the red, white, and blue of the “Stars and Stripes”—is the quintessential American color.
When Rodriguez says that “the future is brown,” his thesis is complex, because he thinks of brown “not in the sense of pigment, necessarily,” but as a color that entails the mixing of earthy experience. Although Rodriguez hopes that “brown may be as refreshing as green,” that vision has to reckon with the fact that, historically, the dominant American color has been white. Contradicting the “innocence” often associated with that complexion, white ensures that Americans are not color-blind but color- conscious. Much of that awareness has manifested itself in black and white, as the African American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois discerned in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) when he argued that the “color line” would be the twentieth century’s decisive problem. Dubious that America could solve it, Du Bois became an expatriate, leaving his native United States for Africa in the early 1960’s.
Not long before Du Bois’s departure, Rodriguez’s parents emigrated from their native Mexico to California, where Richard, the third of their four children, was born in San Francisco and raised in Sacramento. Although American census classifications have dubbed him “Hispanic,” a category he attacks, Rodriguez sometimes underscores the complexity of American identity by contending that he is “Irish,” which is his way of paying respect to the formative influence of Irish nuns who taught him English. In its “brown” form, English becomes a language best called “American,” and it is to the multiple expressions of that tongue that Rodriguez owes much of his hard-earned optimism.
Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982) andDays of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (1992) were the first two installments of “a trilogy on American public life and my private life” that Brown completes. Emphasizing that Benjamin Franklin is one of Rodriguez’s heroes, the latter book shows how profoundly its author has continued to believe in the American Dream of opportunity, mobility, new beginnings, and self-invention. His reasons for doing so include the fact that he has never forgotten the true words that his father impressed upon him. As they polished the secondhand blue DeSoto that was the family car in the 1950’s, Rodriguez’s father would tell him: “Life is hard, boy, even harder than you think.”
Ironies, those gaps between expectation and reality that dwell in shortfalls between what Americans preach and practice, are part of what makes life hard in the United States. Rodriguez describes, for example, how it was during the first term (1969- 1973) of Richard Nixon’s presidency that “I became brown. A government document of dulling prose, Statistical Directive 15, would redefine America as an idea in five colors: White. Black. Yellow. Red. Brown.” As artificial as it was racial, as constructed as it was convenient for those who wanted American “minorities” for one reason or another, those color lines tagged Rodriguez not only “brown” but also “Hispanic.” That category, Rodriguez shows, is a misguided invention, for only in America are “Hispanics” to be found. They have no reality anywhere else. In Rodriguez’s case, however, being a “minority” and eventually “Hispanic” had advantages. These classifications put him on affirmative action’s fast track to opportunity. That track, however, did not mean full acceptance and inclusion in America, because white dominance left him tainted “brown.” As long as such schemes and classifications persist, Rodriguez contends, American life will be less than it can and ought to be.
Rodriguez does not find “race” to be “such a terrible word for me.” Although he acknowledges it to be a “tragic noun” whose implications of superiority and inferiority bear responsibility for immeasurable pain and suffering, Rodriguez stresses that racial differences have been attractions, too. “The word race,” he writes, “encourages me to remember the influence of eroticism on history. For that is what race memorializes. Within any discussion of race, there lurks the possibility of romance.” Race divides and separates, but in Rodriguez’s American vision, it lures and connects as well. When he says that race memorializes eroticism and romance, Rodriguez suggests that racial differences will end up “brown.” Again, autobiography informs his cultural analysis. “I do not have a race,” Rodriguez asserts. Already racially mixed, he relishes the mixture and thus insists that so much more than race looms large. Race is real only because social reality has been constructed in its terms. Slowly but surely, American life reveals the absurdity of racial categories. Rodriguez wants to hasten that process: “I write about race in America,” he says, “in hopes of undermining the notion of race in America.”
While ironies make life hard in the United States, Brown argues that they can also be sources of hope to support an American Dream of inclusiveness that blurs the nation’s multifaceted lines of ethnicity and color. Standing at the heart of this vision is Rodriguez’s conviction that “America is browning.” When Rodriguez changes “brown”—the noun or adjective—into the verb-form “browning,” it becomes clear that he thinks an unavoidable process is under way. Increasingly, Americans are unable to define—simply, clearly, innocently—where they come from, no matter how detailed their family trees may be. As it creates, continues, and changes American identity, a “browning” process has been taking place for a long time in the history of the United States. Often without awareness, let alone acknowledgment, Americans are becoming more and more “brown.” Not fully under American control, this process continues even—often especially—when Americans oppose it. As Rodriguez explores and celebrates the power of “browning,” he brings the hidden into view. Rejecting easy optimism about how this process is working, Brown sets before Americans the cunning of a history that is destined to make the nation even more “American” than its color-lined consciousness might imagine.
Rodriguez makes his case by “looking for a brown history of America.” He finds it by turning to widespread episodes and repeated encounters that “lead off the page” of conventional narratives. In the mid-nineteenth century, for example, the young American historian Francis Parkman took a 1,700-mile trip to explore the Oregon trail. Boarding a riverboat in St. Louis, Parkman noted the diversity of its passengers, but he did not ponder the questions that drew Rodriguez’s attention: So very different in terms of what Rodriguez calls the “three isolations” of class, ethnicity, and race, what were those people doing in St. Louis? Where were they going, individually and collectively, literally and figuratively, on that riverboat? Rodriguez suggests that the unwritten history of America, which produces the children that change the nation’s face, shows that those folks, in one way or another, were “browning.”
Americans, Rodriguez thinks, do not talk about what is “off the page,” or at least not enough for their own good. Whatever American identity has been, he contends that it has been mixed, blended, confused, impure. Conflict and resolution drive this tension-filled process. Rodriguez feels it when he hears his name: “I am Richard Rodriguez,” he writes. “My baptismal name and my surname marry England and Spain, Renaissance rivals.” He sees the same tension when contemplating his mirrored face, a brown blend of south-of-the- border Indian and Conquistador, which like so many akin to it has become part of an American blurring that makes greater inclusivity more unavoidable and therefore more probable.
Testifying on behalf of the latter points, Rodriguez states that the 38 Geary Municipal bus line in San Francisco transports some 47,000 people on a typical weekday. The 38 Geary, he points out, is not a Missouri riverboat, but the comparison is nonetheless valid. The persons traveling on such vessels support Rodriguez’s point that people in the United States, with all of their discordant and even dangerous differences, are thrown and brought together so that ethnic, racial, national, religious, and sexual borders do not and cannot hold. Sometimes kicking and screaming, but often erotically and lovingly, Americans are making the nation’s motto, E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”), true and good.
Americans may fail to see the beauty and the passion of “browning” because of their individualism. Overlooking how profoundly, how sensuously, “the ‘we’ is a precondition for saying ‘I,’” Americans underplay the very impurity that enriches both the American “I” and “we,” a theme that Rodriguez calls his most important. Thus, making the identification his “mestizo boast,” Rodriguez gladly describes himself as “a queer Catholic Indian Spaniard at home in a temperate Chinese city in a fading blond state in a post-Protestant nation.” Rodriguez makes no mistake in linking the personal to the public and political. The roots of individual American identities, often oppressed and oppressing, are increasingly snarled, entangled, mixed, and mingled, so much so that “righteousness should not come easily to any of us.”
In Rodriguez’s view, homogenized Americans are not the result. Instead the outcome can be a deeper and better sense of individuality, one that grasps the irony of American history, appreciates the complexity of individual identity, and admits one’s dependence on a vast array of social relationships. From the ethnic foods Americans enjoy to the words and dialects they speak, from the religious communities they have formed and reformed to the mixed marriages they have consummated and the ongoing sexual improprieties, transgressions, and “miscegenations” that have climaxed their way through American history, Rodriguez finds the United States embodying the vision of its nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman. That most American of writers who, more than Franklin, is Rodriguez’s progenitor, had all Americans in mind, especially those of the future, when he wrote “Of every hue and caste am I,” the line with which Brown ends.
Rodriguez knows that American color lines persist. The border- crossing decisions and boundary-blurring acts of “browning” do not go unpunished. Rodriguez’s gritty response is that “only further confusion can save us.” As Brown draws to a close, his belief in “browning” finds its deepest expression through allusions to his Catholic Christianity. “God’s love comes first,” says Rodriguez, “and is not changed. . . . God so loved the world that the Word became incarnate, condescended to mortal clay. God became brown. . . . By brown I mean love.” Time will tell whether Brown can bear the weight of American history, but as the cunning ways of that process unfold, there is little question that “browning” will play parts as persistent as they are contested.
Sources for Further Study
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 24, 2002, p. 10.
The Nation 274 (June 17, 2002): 30.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (April 7, 2002): 1.
The Washington Post Book World, April 21, 2002, p. 2.