Brown by Richard Rodriguez
Brown: The Last Discovery of America
by Richard Rodriguez
Viking. 232 pp. $24.95
Among people who think deeply about sociopolitical matters, the color brown was last rated a heavyweight subject in early 2000. That was when Naomi Wolf was counseling Al Gore at $15,000 a month. Her advice to the candidate: dress in earth tones, which were said to be associated with “alpha male” sensibilities that do well with voters. Or something like that.
Now seeking to deliver an even deeper message about brownness and all its ramifications is Richard Rodriguez, best known as one of the “essayists” on the PBS show News-Hour. Stylistically, Brown is somewhat like those television essays: witty, poetic, obscure, never quite getting to the point, but fun to follow—for a while. It comes on the heels of two other volumes of musings by Rodriguez about his life, and brings him into his fifties. Although largely autobiographical, the book also shows signs of wanting to record some serious thoughts about America’s burgeoning brown (i.e., Hispanic) population.
There are not many sustained threads in Rodriguez’s presentation, but one of his serious thoughts is that browns have reshaped our conception of the country’s history and geography. Until quite recently, America has been conceived of as a land where the major happenings flowed from the old East to the new West. Now, with Hispanics coming at us from the south, and emerging as the country’s largest minority, social change increasingly appears to have a new dynamic. Indeed, Hispanics, in Rodriguez’s view, will come to dominate the U.S., culturally if not numerically: “The future is brown, is my thesis.”
Along the way toward this thesis, Rodriguez grieves about the term “Hispanic,” and carries on at some length about its politicized origins: it was, he says, the noxious Richard Nixon who added it to the official list of ethnic self-designations. Like many others who have found fault with this term, Rodriguez asserts that it is wildly illogical, embracing as it does so many different cultures: “the songwriter from Buenos Aires, the Bolivian from a high mountain village, the Mayan Indian who refuses Spanish, the Mayan Indian who exaggerates Spanish, the Salvadoran evangelical Protestant, the Cuban anti-Communist, the Cuban Communist, the green criminal [who’s that?], the Catholic nun, the red poet,” and more—“Hispanics all!”
On the inadequacy of the term “Hispanic,” Rodriguez is surely right (although he is unfair to Nixon, failing to mention that the President was responding to demands from Hispanic politicians when he added the term to the 1970 census). Rodriguez’s larger thesis, that the future of the U.S. is brown, is something else again. The proposition is hardly unfamiliar, but it is radically undeveloped for a book that bears the title Brown, and Rodriguez nowhere seeks to parse it in a methodical way. He does not look at U.S. immigration policy or Hispanic demographic data or any other kind of data, settling instead for rhetoric that appears to spring forth naturally:
And every day and every night poor people trample the legal fiction that America controls its own destiny. There is something of inevitability . . . in what I begin hearing in America from businessmen—a hint of Latin American fatalism, a recognition of tragedy that is simply the verso of optimism, but descriptive of the same event: You can’t stop them coming [emphasis in the original].
In a period when our porous borders have become a huge national issue, this seems inadequate, to say the least. But it is also typical. Rodriguez being Rodriguez, we are taken here to existential realms remote from anything as quotidian as data. Instead we get an avalanche of allusions, metaphors, and free associations, all allegedly pointing up the omnipresence of brownness in life.
It is relevant, we are told, that Sherlock Holmes is sometimes described as being “in a brown study.” More mysteriously, Rodriguez says he is “writing brownly,” and that he has “brown thoughts.” “Brown is time,” he tells us, especially in Mexico. We are also reminded that excrement is brown, which eventually leads to the thought that sodomy, too, is brown. (Rodriguez, who is gay, identifies himself as a “queer Catholic Indian Spaniard” and has trouble not talking about this dimension of his life.) Canada is said to be brown. Ditto for God. Also: “By brown I mean love.” Of additional possible relevance is a passage in the acknowledgements crediting a volume by William Gass with the title On Being Blue: “I am indebted to a book browning on my shelf.”
Weirdest of all is when Rodriguez turns, and then keeps returning, to the theme of brown “impurity.” “The most important theme of my writing now is impurity,” he says, referring to the miscegenation—conquistadores mating with mestizos—that spawned the brown race. Labeling this “impurity,” in a book that claims to be celebrating brownness, seems merely perverse, even for an author plainly smitten by his “paradoxes” and unbothered by the possibility that others may see them plainly as confusions. But then again, “books should confuse” is another of Rodriguez’s poetic pronouncements. By that arresting standard his book delivers.