Sunday, 22 May 2011

Race and Private Property in Clybourne Park.

Clybourne Park begins in 1959 just as Russ and Bev are selling their desirable two-bed room house in a respectable neighbourhood for a knock-down price. The low price offered by Russ enables the black family to move into a predominantly white area of Chicago, which alarms the neighbours and Russ finds himself arguing with Karl over what should be done. As the play was written in reaction to A Raisin in the Sun and that would lead us to conclude that the family about to move into the neighbourhood are the Youngers. The Youngers had come into a great deal of money and decided to move into a better neighbourhood, which just so happened to be white only to find they're not welcome. Clybourne Park then jumps forward 50 years to 2009 and the tables have been turned. Now it is a white couple, about to have a child, looking to move into the same neighbourhood, which is now predominantly black, with the intention of knocking down the same house to build their own family home.

America changed a great deal from 1959 to 2009, particularly in regards to race and property relations. In 1959 the conflict was still raging between the US and the Soviet Union and the "red scare" McCarthyist witch-hunts were still in the back of people's minds. Typically Karl invokes the Soviet Union when Russ tells him to leave. JFK, the first Catholic President, was about to be elected. The Civil Rights movement had just got started, segregation was still in place in the US and African-Americans were still deprived of the right to vote. Fast-forward 50 years and there is a black family in the White House, a presidential palace built by slaves. The references to the Korean war are swapped for references to the war in Iraq, from the Cold War to the "War on Terrorism". Kevin has three relatives fighting abroad and has a support the troops attitude to the war. Russ and Bev left Clybourne Park to get away from the house where their son Kenneth hung himself after coming home from the Korean war.

Since 1959 the US has become ever-increasingly unequal as the social democratic policies initiated under Roosevelt have been eroded. The brief opening of jobs and rights for African-Americans began to be closed in the 1970s when job opportunities dwindled as finance has replaced manufacturing in importance in the economy. Formally rights remain intact, but for millions of blacks these rights have been stripped away in the judicial system. The election of the first Black President has been construed to represent America's shift to a post-racial era. Thus, the elephant in the room in Act II of Clybourne Park is race and racism. The eruption of racist jokes represents just how real issues of race still are in America, whilst the patronising tone of liberals towards black people is depicted very well with hammed up acting, absurdly euphemistic language and the way characters generally avoid the elephant in the room. The flaw of liberal multiculturalism comes across clearly, we officially accept the non-invasive Other so we can go on ignoring the Other in our daily lives.

It is typical of American conservatives to advocate a meritocratic attitude of colour-blindness on matters of race, which provides a convenient platform from which affirmative action can be shot down as "racist" to white people. Note that the conservatives are colour-conscious enough to spot a black person calling for affirmative action or dares to remind white people of the injustices of the past. There are some conservatives would go even further to increase the constraints on Blackness, opposing the label 'African-American' and instead arguing that the label 'American' should be used to describe everyone. The invasive Otherness of slogans like "Black Power" unsettle conservatives, because it makes reference to black people and not coloured people, the immediate reaction is to pin the label "racist" on Malcolm X. The "colour-blindness" of the American conservatives like Ronald Reagan has space to revoke the Civil Rights act and place Nelson Mandela on a list of "terrorists".

The importance attributed to home ownership in American culture is related to liberal notions of meritocracy and private property. It's a contradiction of middle-class aspirations, colour-blindness and classlessness which collide in Clybourne Park. There is a correlation between race and class in the US: 50% of white children in the US will live on food stamps at some point in their lives whereas 90% of black children will live on food stamps. Discrimination hangs in the background of the American Dream, with the white urbanites act to "protect" the interests of the community when a black family move in next door. It was the aspirations of the family which led them to take up the opportunity of an affordable house in a respectable neighbourhood, it was a chance to make it up the ladder from one social class to another. American meritocracy was only intended to allow white people, if anyone at all, to rise up the ladder. It provides a retrospective justification for white privilege, a meritocracy in which the meritorious are almost all white by coincidence.

Interestingly, it is only after the explosion of racial tension into racist jokes and a full-blown fight that the spirit of Kenneth can leave the house. The suicide note he left for his parents remains a mystery to us. We might interpret the events in between as a vanishing mediator. From the black family moving into a white neighbourhood up to the white family moving back into the neighbourhood, which is now predominantly black, all of this had to happen in order for Kenneth's letter to be read and understood by someone. Though not by the audience. The letter is confessional in content and might offer up a catalogue of atrocities which he committed in Korea. From the thematic focus on race and private property we might surmise that the crimes in Korea may be a stand-in for a submerged history of violence in the US. Then we might infer that it is only after tensions, along the lines of race and class, have been resolved can Americans understand the past without the nostalgic filters of self-serving apple pie and freedom-loving rhetoric.

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